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The Forgotten Beauty of Sacrifice
“Love is not sentimentality, but sacrifice.”
The Language Barrier
One of the greatest difficulties which modern Americans face when encountering Holy Orthodoxy is one of language. I do not refer, however, to the outward obstacle of the use of Church Slavonic, Greek, Arabic, or any other of the languages of Orthodox immigrants to this country. I refer rather to the colossal problem of the usage of the English language.
For all of its intrinsic and obvious secularism, our culture is nonetheless profoundly steeped in the language of Christianity. So much so that my professor of American Literature in college, himself a Jew, once said to us that it is absolutely futile to attempt to understand any literature written more than fifty years ago without first having a thorough and comprehensive knowledge of the Christian Bible.
So far so good, right? But the problem is this: whether we are aware of it or not, the Christian vocabulary of the English language has been deeply saturated with five hundred years of theology, and frankly this theology can ofttimes be quite far from Orthodox Christianity. To put it another way: there are certain theological assumptions which our minds automatically make whenever we hear a Christian word, and these assumptions are conditioned not only by our own explicitly held beliefs but also by our shared cultural heritage and the historical development of Christianity in the West. But Orthodoxy must nevertheless use this same set of English words, despite the fact that the Orthodox Church sometimes means by them something far different than what we as American actually hear when these words are used.
This can be true even of words that are altogether foundational to Christianity itself: grace, salvation, sin, judgment, temptation, mercy, repentance… even love. As a result, it can be extremely difficult for us to come to an authentic understanding of what Christianity really is, of what the Church really teaches about the most important questions in life: who is God, who are we, how ought we to live? And our difficulty is made so much the worse by the fact that we very often have no idea that there is a problem at all, we do not even realize that these words mean something far different than what we think they mean.
There are many such words in the English language. But the word that I want to talk about today is “sacrifice.”
The Meaning of Sacrifice
When we hear the word “sacrifice,” we usually interpret it on one of two levels. The first is the literal and outward, and on this level we typically associate the word with the slaughter of an animal (or sometimes even a human being) in order to propitiate the wrath of a deity. In our minds it is an act of substitutionary retribution: we have angered the god, and the god would have punished us, but we as a community bargain with him to punish the animal (or the human victim) instead. Those of us who have grown up in post-Christian America probably associate this idea of sacrifice mainly with the animal sacrifices of Old Testament Judaism, although we are also likely to assume that the various pagan civilizations practiced sacrifice on more or less the same basis as well.
This conceptualization of “sacrifice” is, in actual fact, almost totally false. That is to say, it does not at all reflect the meaning that sacrifice actually held in Old Testament Judaism, or for that matter in most pagan cultures either.
Sacrifice as Food
Fr. Stephen De Young has written an excellent and very important article which does a great deal to clarify our understanding of this matter:
The first reality that must be kept in mind is that the sacrificial system is not made up entirely, or even primarily, of sin offerings. The sacrificial system commanded in the Law includes grain offerings, drink offerings, first fruits of crops and livestock, offerings for firstborn male children, and still more occasional offerings. Additionally, the way in which sin offerings, and the annual Day of Atonement are understood in the West does not accord with the actual witness of scripture. The typical view, that a sin offering involved the sins of a person or the community being placed on an animal and the animal then being killed to atone for the sins is found nowhere in the scriptures. There is only one instance in the entire sacrificial system in which sins are placed upon an animal, on the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement, and that animal is expressly not sacrificed, because bearing the sins of the people it is unclean. The imagery of the scapegoat is certainly applied to Christ in the New Testament, in both Hebrews and the synoptic Gospels, as well as in early Christian writings like the Epistle of Barnabas. But this imagery of Christ as sin bearer is not, strictly speaking, sacrificial imagery.
This latter point, regarding the misconception of sin offerings, points to a larger misconception regarding sacrifice, that it is centered around the act of killing. When looking at the sacrificial system as a whole, it becomes very clear that many of the sacrificial offerings, such as grain and drink offerings, or offerings that involve bread or cakes, cannot be killed, and have no blood. Rather, what every sacrificial offering, throughout the sacrificial system, has in common is that it is food. Sacrifices are therefore not bloody acts of killing, but rather meals offered to God, and participated in by the eating of portions of the sacrifice by the priests and the worshippers. This is why the result of the burning of these offerings is described throughout the Law as an ‘aroma pleasing to the Lord’ (Gen 8:21, Lev 1:9, 2:2, 23:18). The same language is applied both to animal offerings and to grain offerings. The same language is also applied by St. Paul to the sacrifice of Christ himself (Eph 5:2). For an animal to become part of a meal, it must be killed and appropriately butchered according to the commandments, but these are secondary to its role as meal.
Even a simple etymological analysis confirms Fr. Stephen’s thesis: the word “sacrifice” in English comes from the Latin roots sacer (“sacred, holy”), and faciō (“do, make”). Thus, to sacrifice does not at all mean to slaughter something, but rather to make something holy.
And when we stop to think for even just a moment, it is actually quite astonishing that we so easily overlook so obvious a fact: sacrifices are offerings of food. In other words, they are meals shared with God. And even this simple and elementary understanding of the concept of sacrifice paints a far different picture of the way in which man relates to God than the one to which we are accustomed as modern American Christians.
Sacrifice as Life
Such an picture leads us to an understanding of God which is, to say the least, far less threatening. Passages in Scripture which before seemed ominous begin to take on quite a different character. A perfect example is the verse in Hebrews: “without shedding of blood is no remission.” The theology passed on to us by our culture tends to make us hear something like: “forgiveness requires that someone must pay the penalty.” But this is not the essential meaning of the verse at all; in the Scriptures, blood symbolizes life, not death. The verse means that the remission of our sins can only be accomplished by an outpouring of life. In this way, the Old Testament practice of sanctification by the sprinkling of blood prefigured the renewal of corrupted human nature by the live-giving death of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is not, in the final analysis, about punishment. It is about life and death, about healing and resurrection.
This interpretation is much more of a piece with the other Old Testament sacrificial offerings, because as discussed above, almost all of these offerings had to do with food. And food is that which sustains and nourishes our life. Because even if the offering of food sometimes requires that there be a death, this death is not punitive but transformative.
Sacrifice as Faith
Yet a transfiguration requires that there be something to be transfigured. The offering of food may seem to us, overfed and spoiled Americans that we are, to be of little significance. But outside of the First World countries of the modern age, food is usually much more scarce and therefore of far greater importance. To offer bulls and goats and the first-fruits of the harvest to God was an act of faith scarcely comprehensible to us, who have probably never been anywhere close to real hunger in our lives.
The example of sacrifice as faith par excellence is undoubtedly the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac. Not only was Isaac his beloved son, but the Lord had made it abundantly clear that through Isaac would come all the blessings which He had promised to Abraham. Therefore to ask for Isaac in sacrifice was truly to ask Abraham for everything. And for this supreme feat, more than anything else in his entire wondrous and edifying life, is Abraham called the Father of Faith.
Yet even this awesome and terrifying sacrifice, perhaps the greatest human act ever recorded in the Old Testament, was only a foreshadowing of the coming sacrifice which God would offer, unasked: His own beloved Son. In that Sacrifice He shows us His love; He gives us Himself.
Sacrifice as Communion
Fr. Stephen De Young’s article, cited above, is a discussion of the fulfillment of the Old Testament sacrificial system in the Christian Eucharist. And indeed, once we begin to recover the understanding of sacrifice as a meal shared with God, the concept of the Eucharist — of Holy Communion — begins to suddenly make much more sense.
But it also begins to make much less sense. The profoundly radical nature of the offering of the Eucharist begins to come more fully into view. Throughout all the long millennia of human history, mankind offered sacrifice to the gods. But now, God Himself offers sacrifice for us. And not only that, but the sacrifice is nothing other than His own Pure Body and His own Precious Blood. And even more, this supreme Sacrifice was made literally in the face of humanity’s ultimate scorn, rejection, and mockery of the very Lamb of God Who was freely offering Himself for us, an offering which even the holy angels look upon with fear and trembling.
To meditate on this is to be filled with awe and humility. But it is also to be filled with love and longing. Because the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is about so much more than a satisfaction of mere justice. It is about, precisely, Holy Communion. It is about the total unification of God with human nature, in all our frailty and all our loneliness and suffering, right down to a miserable death and a descent into the depths of hell. It is about the offering of the divine life that was then poured forth abundantly on all mankind. It is about the deep and mystical unification of all Christians with the resurrected and glorified Lord Jesus Christ — and therefore also with one another — in the partaking of His broken Body and His spilled Blood in the supreme sacrifice of the Eucharist. This is the essence of Christianity.
The Beauty of Sacrifice
But the meaning of sacrifice has profound implications not only for Christian worship, not only for Christian theology, but also for our entire Christian life.
I mentioned near the beginning of this article that there is a second level on which we interpret the word “sacrifice.” And that level is the personal level: the sacrifices which God asks of each us in our own lives.
So often we think of sacrifice as loss, or as the death of things that we love. When we perceive that God is calling us to sacrifice something, we think more or less that we are being asked to slaughter it. But what we are really being called to do is to “make it holy.” We are being given an opportunity to take something earthly and offer it up so that God can transfigure it, so that it will be transformed into a bridge between earth and heaven. We are being offered nothing less than communion in the divine life itself.
Sometimes we think that in Christ sacrifice has been abolished, and so we resist the idea that there are things which God might require of us. But the words which Christ spoke are true: the Law is not abolished, but fulfilled. And that means that we must sacrifice not nothing, but everything.
But that also means that our entire lives can — and indeed must — become wholly suffused with God.
One man I know is fond of saying: “Sacrifice is love’s only language.” It is an echo of some of the most beautiful words which our Lord ever spoke on earth: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” It was with this love that He first loved us. And it is this same love which He offers to us in every offering that we make to Him.
The beauty of this love, the forgotten beauty of sacrifice, cannot even begin to be compared with any other beauty or any other love. Once your heart catches even the slightest glimpse of it, everything that once seemed solid and substantial becomes empty and hollow. Only that love and that beauty matter.
When we sacrifice anything to Christ, when we sacrifice anything for our brothers and sisters — even our very lives themselves — we lose nothing that was ever of any value. Quite the contrary: we find the very things themselves, now in their true form and shining with their true beauty. And all these things — and far, far more besides — will be ours, and Christ’s, and one another’s, for all eternity.
I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ.
For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.
Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.