The Elements of Sacrifice

This is the third in a four part series exploring sacrifice. Press the “Previous” button for parts 1 and 2.

Sacrifice consists of three necessary elements. First it requires an Offeror. The one who offers sacrifice must have the intent to offer something of real value back to God. Secondly, sacrifice requires an Offering. The offering must be something pure if it is to be sanctified (made holy) in order to be presented before God. Thirdly, the sacrifice needs a Recipient, that is some divinity to whom the sacrifice is presented as gift. These three elements, Offeror, Offering, and Divine Recipient are essential to offering any true sacrifice.

But how can sinful humans make an acceptable sacrifice to an all holy God? The one who makes the sacrificial offering is called a priest and for a pure offering to be made we need a sinless high priest. That priest is Jesus Christ who instituted a new priesthood distinct from the old Levitical priesthood. “Like Melchizedek, you are a priest forever.” (Ps. 110:4). His is an everlasting priesthood that will endure. (Heb. 7:3) It was Melchizedek, who as King of Salem, (meaning “King of Peace”) blessed Abraham and offered ‘bread and wine.’ Melchizedek is a prototype of Christ. Both claim a mysterious ancestry meaning that their priesthood is not tied to any particular bloodline. Both precede Abraham, our acknowledged ‘Father in Faith.’ “Amen, Amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.” (Jn. 8:58) Christ, as the new Melchizedek, then institutes a new priestly line.

Secondly we need an offering which must be something pure and blameless. In a blood sacrifice we call that offering the victim. That unblemished victim is Jesus Christ who, in his capacity as man, serves in a dual role as the sinless priest and as the pure, spotless victim. “He entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” (Heb. 9:12)

Lastly, the proper object of sacrifice is God, and the intention of the offeror is paramount in this regard. The Catholic Encyclopedia states, “Every work of mercy towards others or ourselves, if it be directed to God, is truly sacrifice.” In the Jewish temple sacrifices blood from the victim (representing life) was sprinkled or poured onto the altar which stood as a visible symbol of God himself. God therefore receives the sacrificial offering of life, symbolized by the blood. In the New Testament theology of sacrifice, Christ, in his capacity as God, also serves as the altar, representing his Father. So we see that Christ, as priest, victim, and altar, provides all three necessary elements necessary for sacrifice.

The Church also teaches that Christ makes each of us a priest at our baptism, which presents one very interesting implication. As priesthood is ordered specifically to sacrifice, the logical assumption is one of continuous sacrifice. Ours is not the high priesthood of Christ who alone makes an offering for sin (Heb. 10:17-18), but it is a priesthood, nonetheless. Now, if we are priests and the object of our sacrifice is God, we need an offering or victim that is pure and spotless, namely his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ.  “For by one offering he has made perfect forever those who are being consecrated.” (Heb. 10:14)

Sacrifice and the New Israel

Christianity is in a very real sense the continuation of the Jewish religion from which we must start. Did the Jewish religion perform sacrifice? Yes. In fact blood sacrifice was at the very heart of the Jewish religion. It is explicitly prescribed in the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers among others. It is both biblical and unquestionably historical. It was continuously offered, except for a brief interruption during the Exilic period, from the time of Moses until the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. Forty years prior to that event the temple sacrifice had been brought to perfection by the long awaited Messiah, Jesus Christ, who shed his own blood as the perfect act of sacrifice made to his Father. He thereby sealed a new and living covenant, atoning for all the sins of mankind, once for all. (Heb. 9:15)

In the Jewish religion there were various modes of sacrifice such as the holocaust, covenant sacrifice, and an atonement in which the surrender of life is made as payment of a debt. Various offerings were presented as well, including animals for blood sacrifice and cereal offerings (e.g. unleavened bread) which were generally accompanied by libations of wine. But there was another aspect to Jewish ritual sacrifice. The Gift Sacrifice, or minha, included a communion ceremony in the form of a meal, reflecting the Semitic custom of sealing a contract by sharing a meal. The minha signified expiation, accomplished through the shedding of blood, which was then sprinkled on the altar by the priest. Parts of the victim, fat and entrails, were then immolated while other choice parts were eaten by the priest; the remainder consumed by those making the offering.

The perfect sacrifice made by Christ encompassed all of these. Even the sharing of the victim’s flesh, minha,  was dramatically played out on Holy Thursday (“take and eat…”). Christ established a new rite exactingly based on the old Mosaic ritual. (Heb. 9:1-12) and, significantly, commanded his followers to imitate his actions, “Do this in memory of me.” (1Cor. 11:23-26) The following day he himself was slaughtered as the new Paschal Lamb (no actual lamb was killed the previous night for Christ knew himself to be the intended victim) and his blood was sprinkled on the earth, just as Moses had sprinkled the sacrificial lamb’s blood on the tabernacle and the people. (Heb. 9: 19-22) Does that not signify that the world itself was purified and consecrated by this eternal High Priest? In other words sacrifice, in its new Eucharistic form, became the universal norm, transcending the limitations of Jewish temple worship.

The Eucharist manifests the old Jewish Passover memorial in a new light. For the Jews, a memorial is something more than a recollection of some past event. In the Scriptural sense it is ‘making present’ those historic events which God had brought about for their deliverance. Moses insisted that each Israelite partake of the paschal lamb’s flesh as a necessary condition of that very first Passover, a practice that was to be renewed “as a perpetual institution.” (Ex. 12:24-25)  Similarly, Christ’s sacrifice does not cease abruptly after his Ascension but rather it is perpetuated as a constant sign of this New and Living Covenant. While Christ made his sacrifice “once for all,” he also intended for later generations to feed on his body, as prefigured in the Jewish communion sacrifice, the minha. The Eucharist upholds that same tradition, in effect memorializing the New Passover so that, “the sacrifice of Christ offered once for all on the cross remains ever present.” (Catechism, no. 1364) The Church teaches that this Sacrifice of the Altar “is the supreme instrument whereby the merits won by Christ upon the cross are distributed to the faithful. Nor does this lessen the dignity of the actual sacrifice on Calvary (but) rather proclaims… its greatness and its necessity.” (P.Pius XII, Mediator Dei, 1947)

Like Moses before him Christ established his own sacrificial Passover as a living and perpetual institution which has been passed down through the Eucharistic Liturgy for 2,000 years now. “But he, because he remains forever, has a priesthood that does not pass away.” (Heb. 7:24) The Hebrew Passover was a passing from slavery into freedom ─ Christ’s Passover is a passage from death into life; from sin to justification. And the Eucharist, as the memorial of that New Passover, is truly a sacrifice, indicated by the very words of institution, “This is my body which is given for you.” (Catechism, no. 1365) The new order of sacrifice thereby fulfills what the old could only symbolize and prefigure.

Still, there remains one critical distinction between the sacrifices which sealed the Old and New Covenants. In the Mosaic rite life was extinguished; the victim was immolated so that those animal sacrifices had to be repeated time and again. But Christ now offers himself as a ‘living’ sacrifice to the Father on our behalf, made possible by his Resurrection which changed the whole dynamic of sacrifice. No longer relying on dead animals, we today offer a single ‘living’ victim to the Father as expiation for sins. Jesus, who tasted death but once, will never die again. He expanded our understanding of sacrifice by combining the Paschal meal with his sacrificial death and glorious resurrection. The Mass is not a ‘re-killing’ of Jesus but the joyful offering of a living victim. In this new Paschal order it is death which is being destroyed on the altar, not life as occurred in the old rite. The offering of a living sacrifice, impossible under Judaism, becomes the new norm for Christianity thanks to Christ’s bodily resurrection.

Christ’s perfect sacrifice transformed Judaism into a new, more perfect religion over the next 40 years (just as the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years before entering the Promised Land). This period of grace was not indefinite, however. After 40 years ‘in the balance,’ Jerusalem’s downfall in 70 AD marked a final passage from the Old Covenant to the New. The Church in essence became the one true successor to Israel, its scriptures, laws, and traditions. At the heart of that tradition stands a new Passover sacrifice (a.k.a. the Mass) instituted by the New Moses, Christ, who likewise delivers his people from bondage while giving them a new and more perfect law, this one based on love.

The old Mosaic law centered on temple sacrifice where blood, representing life itself, was offered back to God. In the new, Christ offers his own blood as a perfect ‘living’ sacrifice to the Father. The Mass is that same living sacrifice at the heart of a New Jerusalem, utilizing the familiar elements of bread and wine which had also figured prominently in Jewish temple sacrifice. Meanwhile, the spilling of animal blood was rendered obsolete. Christ, who consecrated the whole world by sprinkling his sacred blood upon it, now mystically supplies that same life-giving blood at every Mass so that we too may share in his sacrificial mission.

Love at the Core of Sacrifice

Sacrifice would be a meaningless gesture if it were not motivated by love, understood as “agape,” namely that pure love of God in which he desires us to participate. Therefore the Psalmist says, “Sacrifice and oblations you do not want, but ears open to obedience you gave me.” (Ps. 40:7) Again, “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” (Hos. 6:6) The prophet Isaiah expounds on this very theme, “What care I for the multitude of your sacrifices? Says the Lord… Wash yourselves clean! Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.” (Is. 1:11;16) After all,  deferring to one’s neighbor with the intention of pleasing God becomes a sacrificial action. If a man’s heart and intentions are not pure no amount of ritual sacrifice is going to make him pleasing before God. The sacrifice of a pure heart, that is the love we bear God and neighbor, is indispensable in successfully uniting one’s own personal sacrifices to Christ’s sacrifice.

At the Last Supper John indicates how Jesus himself brought the ritual and practical aspects of sacrifice harmoniously together by washing the feet of his apostles thus broadening our understanding of what sacrifice entails. All hinges on that one great commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole mind, your whole heart, your whole strength and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” For loving God and neighbor are not twin commandments, rather these are two halves of the SAME commandment. We must first love God in order to truly love our neighbor because God IS love to the very core of his being. Therefore all love has its origin in God himself.

St. John plainly states, “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expatiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we must also love one another.” (1Jn. 4:10-11) Having already received God’s love, it is incumbent upon us to extend it to others. Therefore any sacrifice we offer to God must somehow include our neighbor. Sacrifice has a communal dimension. St. John emphasizes, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his neighbor, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1Jn. 4:20)

Human love can be exploitive and self-serving, even among family members and friends. As humans, we too easily confuse our personal desires with love. Absolute love reaches beyond desires and even natural affections. It expresses itself sacrificially, that is directed towards God. If we intend to please another because that would please God, our love is sacrificial. If we only please others for personal gratification, or for social acceptance or a heightened sense of control, then our love is imperfect. The acid test of genuine love is how we treat the person we find most annoying. We should ask ourselves, “am I willing to wash that person’s feet just as Jesus washed the feet of Judas?” (Jn. 13:1-11) Ritual sacrifice thus perfected by love, becomes wholly acceptable to God.

Francis J. Pierson  a.m.d.g.

Next week: Look for the exciting conclusion, “Sacrifice takes a Calvinist Detour” and “Sacrifice in the Catholic Sense.”

 

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