A friend of mine has made tremendous sacrifices, over many years. His son married and had children, but his daughter’s marriage has produced no children. The grandchildren by the son are joys to their grandparents, but the daughter has been a source of great distress. Prior to her marriage she had a pet, and the pet remained the focus of her attention after she married. Because of the pet, there are no children in her household.
The cause of my friend’s suffering is not the existence of the pet; it is the nature of the pet, a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig. The closest thing to a grandchild by his daughter that my friend will ever have trots on four hooves, and snorts. Every year before Easter my friend threatens to buy newly hatched chicks as Easter basket gifts for his two (human), grandchildren. His plan is that, when the chicks grow into hens, he can make breakfast for the whole family on Christmas morning. The chicks will be old enough by Christmastime to contribute eggs to the breakfast; the pig, however, will have to make the ultimate sacrifice.
In conversational usage, “sacrifice” means to surrender something (like the pig surrendering its life to provide bacon for breakfast), or to endure something (like putting up with a daughter’s eccentric choice of pets). When we think about “sacrifice” we tend to think of the sacrifices that parents make for children, the sacrifices that people make in order to keep their jobs and the sacrifices that amateur athletes make in order to train for the Olympics. These sacrifices provide direct and indirect benefits to the parties involved; they are, most often, an exchange of an immediate benefit in favor of a future benefit.
The Gospel reading today offers a very different perspective on sacrifice. Mary and Joseph came to the Temple to offer the sacrifice necessary for Mary’s purification, and to pay the ransom for a first-born male child. (Luke 2:22-24) Mary’s sacrifice was associated with the kosher laws pertaining to pregnancy, and the ransom of a first-born son was a memorial of the Exodus event. These sacrifices restored ritual purity to Mary, and restored Jesus to his parents. The sacrificial offerings strengthened the Covenant bond between God and the Holy Family of Nazareth.
Sacrifice, in Hebrew religion, was used to establish and renew the Covenant between God and God’s people. Abraham sacrificed “a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon” (Genesis 15:9), as ratification of the covenant in which God promised to make him the father of countless sons. (Genesis 15:5) The Israelites sacrificed lambs for the Passover as ratification of the covenant in which God promised to spare them from the plague that would kill the first-born sons of the Egyptians. (Exodus 12:1-13) The prophet Elijah sacrificed a young bull to call the people away from worship of a false god, and back to a renewed fidelity to the Covenant. (1 Kings 18:21-38) When King David brought the Ark of the Covenant to a permanent place of honor in Jerusalem, “he sacrificed an ox and a fatling” to signify the beginning of a new era of Israel’s fidelity to God. (2 Samuel 6:13)
These examples of Hebrew sacrifice were not performed as mutually beneficial acts. They were not done in order to guarantee a better future for someone. Rather, they were acts of consecration. They were expressions of the desire to give God something that was perfect (in the Scriptural sense of perfection). The death of sacrificial animals was intended both to send the animals to God (in heaven), and to make the gift complete and irrevocable. The biblical notion of perfection is one in which something has reached a state of completion or finality; this is fundamentally unlike our notion of perfection as an abstraction or an ideal. The death of the sacrificial animal brought finality to its existence, and made it a complete (perfect), gift to God.
In today’s Gospel reading, Simeon and Anna rejoiced over the perfect sacrifice that was to be the life and death of Jesus. Jesus was a gift from the earth, but a gift in whom sin was absent; Jesus’ sinlessness made him an acceptable sacrifice to God. The sword that would pierce the heart of Mary indicated that Jesus would be a sacrificial victim. Jesus’ death at the end of his ministry meant that human nature had been irrevocably joined to God’s divine nature. The perfect sacrifice made by Jesus became the instrument of God’s forgiveness and the means by which individuals could participate in that forgiveness. It was a perfect sacrifice, not in the sense of being an abstraction or an ideal, but in the sense of being final and irrevocable. This ought to be the sort of sacrifice that we make when we live a life of faith.
If we have put our faith in salvation through the death of Jesus, that faith should be visible in the way in which we live. A visible faith is one that demonstrates to all that we have consecrated our lives to God, and made of ourselves a complete sacrifice of fidelity. This is not sacrifice in the sense of trading a present benefit for a future one, but in the sense of giving ourselves completely and irrevocably over to being Jesus’ disciples. Unfortunately, the life of faith is too often understood to be a sacrifice in the sense of a transaction.
Mass attendance, for example, ought to be the sort of thing that we do in order to give God a complete and irrevocable gift; it ought to be done as a weekly renewal of our Baptismal covenant with God. I say “ought” because many Catholics consider Mass attendance to be the other sort of sacrifice. Mass is too often seen as a burdensome obligation. For those folks, God is the original inspiration for the fourteen red light cameras that are scattered around Clearwater. Sunday Mass attendance is a sacrifice because they’re afraid of getting caught if they’re absent. In order to avoid punishment from God (like getting a traffic fine that might last forever), they sacrifice a little of their free time to sit through Mass just as drivers have to sacrifice a little of their time to sit through the red traffic lights; it’s an exchange of an immediate reward in the hope of avoiding a penalty.
If your image of God is one that entails avoiding being caught doing the things you like to do, I recommend that you re-think that image. God ought to merit your love rather than your fear. The sacrifices that we make as expressions of our faith are not done in order to appease an angry deity; nor are they means to keep God at a contented, but safe, distance. The sacrifices we make are done in order to strengthen and renew our covenanted relationship with God; our sacrifices are complete and irrevocable gifts in exactly the same way that Jesus was a complete and irrevocable sacrifice for our sins.
If we understand Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross to be like the mutually beneficial sacrifices that people make in order to trade an immediate benefit for a future benefit, then Jesus’ life seems wasted and devalued, and God seems like an angry monster who needs to be appeased. This, of course, is not the meaning of sacrifice in the Scriptures. Jesus’ sacrificial death was an act of consecrating human nature as a complete gift to God, and as an irrevocable sign of God’s love and mercy toward the world.
In exactly the same way, if we understand the Christian life as requiring a sacrifice of an immediate reward for the sake of receiving a future reward, we make our relationship with God to be little more than a business transaction, and our morality nothing more than a desire not to get caught committing infractions. It’s no wonder that so many find weekly Mass attendance to be a burden. If this is their understanding of religion, then religion is petty and to be avoided.
Our Eucharistic sacrifice, our dedication to living our baptismal vows, our Offertory and charitable contributions, all have the same purpose. These are sacrifices in the Scriptural sense; they are intended to strengthen our unity with God, to give a pure gift to God and send it to heaven. We are not here to “pay our dues” or avoid punishment; we gather here weekly to consecrate ourselves to God, to make ourselves a perfect sacrifice in the Scriptural sense: a complete and irrevocable offering that maintains our covenant relationship.
In the Baptismal covenant God offers forgiveness of all our sins, and the ability for us to forgive others. In the Eucharist God offers us complete communion with Jesus the Savior. God does not hold back in giving us God’s self; as God’s covenant partners we are obliged to imitate God’s complete self-giving.
The Offertory procession that we’ll have in a few minutes isn’t a token gesture; it is a ritual that allows all of us to place our gifts, and ourselves, on the Altar as sacrificial offerings. The Communion rite in which we will participate during this Mass is the reception of consecrated bread and wine; it is also the consecration of our lives to God.
The sacrifice that God wants from us, the sacrifice that ratifies our covenant relationship with God, is not a token gift of some of our time and attention; it is the complete and irrevocable gift of ourselves. Anything less than that is a lack of faith and a waste of effort. We are invited today, and every Sunday, to renew our Covenant bond with God. If you think about it for a moment, you will probably admit that you want nothing less than full communion with the One, True God. God wants nothing less than full communion with you.