It’s time to sacrifice. Let’s do it. Anything around we can sacrifice? Altars came up in conversation the other day, and that led to talking about sacrifice, which seems like such an unpleasant word, conjuring up as it does images of slaughtered animals, and even humans. Sacrifices are so, so Pagan: virgins, volcanoes, and all that. It comes from watching too many Indiana Jones movies. What follows is a brief take on sacrifice that may be helpful to those who have wondered about it.
The common idea of sacrifice is to kill or destroy something of great value as an offering to the gods, hoping it will be acceptable, with the idea that, if the gods appreciate such a costly gift, maybe they’ll do something nice in return: rain, a bumper crop, winning the Lotto, something like that. After all, what could be ore costly than a prize bull, the best from the orchard, or something else of great material value? Surely the gods would be pleased. Those kinds of sacrifices were common features of many religions all over the world, and something like them was also a part of ancient Judaism, yet it was different.
Our western ways of religious thinking are rooted in conflicting sources, Jewish and Greek, but when it comes to sacrifice, Jewish ways prevail. In spite of all the sacrifices demanded in the Mosaic law, there was always the sense that God did not need them, and they were never meant to be bribes to get God to do something, not that people didn’t try anyway. The sacrifice of an animal or first fruits of the harvest was intended to be costly, the best and first of what one had, as a sign of commitment to a relationship with God and obedience to God’s law. God didn’t need to get it. The people needed to give it. Think of it as God’s version of the old rule that you can’t give away kittens, but you can sell sell them. Needless to say, it got corrupted in dozens of ways, all of which are duly recorded in the Hebrew scriptures. The tradition from which we emerged was nothing if not honest about its own shortcomings.
While ancient sacrifices may have been bloody and costly, the whole idea was that what was offered would be made holy, and the holiness would extend to the persons offering the sacrifice. It was not the death or destruction that counted, but the making holy of something that, in a sense, opened the door between the people and God, allowing the free flow of one into the other. Our English word, sacrifice, is clear about it, coming as it does from a Latin root that means exactly that. The ultimate door opening for Christians was Jesus on the Cross, which, at the empty tomb, was proved not to be a bloody death of something sacrificed to be made holy and acceptable to God, but the Holy One declaring death itself defeated and a new understanding of sacrifice given in place of the old.
Jewish sacrifices ended with the destruction of the temple in 70 c.e.. In the meantime, the new Christian faith went in another direction. Each week they gathered for worship and shared a simple meal of bread and wine, which they understood to be both a remembrance of the Last Supper, and a participation in the actual presence of Christ in the bread and wine. It was a sacrifice in which they presented the bread and wine to God who made it into holy food and drink to nourish them for the days ahead. Then they presented themselves, their bodies and souls, to be holy and reasonable sacrifices to God – that is, they presented themselves to be made holy and useful to God. Being human, it didn’t last long. That’s why it was repeated each week.
As the centuries passed the rite became corrupt. Somehow the priest was understood to be repeating Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and the idea of sacrifice drifted back to seeking God’s favorable response for something. For instance, paying a priest to say a quick mass could get your dead loved one out of purgatory a little faster. The more masses, the quicker he or she could get out. Sort of like TSA precheck financed with bribes to the agents, and a great money maker it was. Five hundred years ago things had become so bad that a German priest named Martin Luther nailed 95 complaints to the door of his small town church, asked for debate, and demanded reform. It didn’t stay local. Thanks to the printing press, it got published and sent around Europe, setting fire to the Reformation. Thirty years later the Church had divided into Protestants and Roman Catholics, and each had reformed their ways.
Since then, the Church has continued to divide into various sects and denominations, each with it’s own understanding of what Christianity means, and disagreements about what sacrifice means. Churches remaining in the Catholic tradition: Roman Catholics, Anglicans (Episcopalians in the U.S.), Lutherans, and some others, have altars that remain places of sacrifice, in the old sense of presenting ourselves as holy and reasonable sacrifices to God as we are fed with the holy food and drink of bread and wine in which Christ is truly present. It’s sacrifice that means everything to those who take it seriously.
With that rough background on sacrifice, it’s time to wrap it up by saying something about the watered down, nearly meaningless use of sacrifice that populates everyday talk, especially church talk. “I’ve sacrificed so much,” and all its cognates, is little more than a whining plea for sympathy or adulation having nothing to do with receiving that which is holy as nourishment to do holy work. “Sacrificial giving,” a term heard often during pledge drives, is usually understood to mean giving until it hurts, which no one ever does. What it should mean is giving resources for the purpose of making them holy for holy work. Amazing what a difference that can make. OK, enough of that. We’re done for now.