The Acceptable Sacrifice
Corpus Christ. Fr Gregory Pearson suggests that the Eucharist helps us to understand the scriptures’ ambivalence about sacrifice. (Sermons for the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time can be found by searching our liturgical index.)
At the heart of the system of worship in the Old Testament is sacrifice: the offering to God of the best that humanity has to give Him. Much of the book of Leviticus is given over to setting out how the people of Israel are to worship God with sacrifice. Indeed, from the beginning of Genesis, the importance of right worship is a theme we find in the narrative: there is the story of Cain and Abel and the offerings they make, and we encounter too the slightly mysterious figure of Melchizedek, priest of the Most High God, and his offering of bread and wine about which we read in today’s first reading.
Alongside these texts, though, which speak of the need to worship with sacrifice, we also find passages of the Old Testament which treat sacrifice as a much more ambivalent phenomenon. ‘I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,’ we read in Hosea (6:6), ‘the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.’ In Psalm 49(50), animal sacrifice seems almost to be mocked: ‘Do you think I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?’ Sacrifice – the attempt to give anything, even what we hold most valuable, to God – is always going to fall short, because at the most fundamental level we don’t have anything to give Him which is not already His. Thus, one of the dangers of offering sacrifice is that we can think that, by giving God something valuable, we have in some sense ‘bought Him off’ and done our bit in relation to God, so that we can then act as we choose without further reference to Him. This is the attitude Isaiah criticises when he says, ‘bring your worthless offerings no more’ (1:13), instead teaching his hearers to ‘stop doing evil! Learn to do right; seek justice and correct the oppressor. Defend the fatherless and plead the case of the widow’ (1:16-17).
But if the offering of sacrifice is so problematic, or at least so liable to misunderstanding as it seems to be from the history of the Old Testament, why is it nonetheless such an important element of the worship God teaches His chosen people to offer Him? In the context of today’s feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, we can find part of the answer in the sacrifice of Christ, the perfection of humans’ worship of God: the Old Testament teaches us that sacrifice – despite the dangers of misunderstanding and abuse – is important because that helps us to understand what Christ does for us on the Cross. His offering, unlike human beings’ earlier attempts, really is perfect and sufficient, because the life he freely offers to the Father is the life he shares with the Father from all eternity, an offering more precious than the whole of the universe or anything in it and an offering which is as much the Son’s to give as it is the Father’s to receive.
Because Christ’s offering is perfect, a worthy sacrifice to give to God, that means that human beings, in Christ, can now offer truly acceptable worship to God. Not only has Christ offered himself, once for all, as a perfect and living sacrifice, but he has given us the means to participate in that sacrifice in a manner appropriate to our earthly life, allowing us – the Church, his Body – to offer his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity to the Father under the appearance of bread and wine. The sacrifice of the Mass is the source and summit of our Christian life because it simply is the praise and worship of God in which the life of heaven consists.
In his perfect gift of himself to the Father, however, Christ also perfects his gift of himself to humanity: the Cross is the culmination, the focal point, one might say, of the incarnation, the purpose for which the Son of God took to himself our human nature. In enabling the perfect worship of God by human beings, then, God also manifests the fullness of his love for humanity: on the Cross, he offers himself to the Father for us. In doing so, he shows that true sacrifice, as the worship of God, does not stand in contrast to practical love and care for our fellow human beings: he reconciles the apparent opposition by showing that worshipping God as he teaches us entails loving our fellow human beings as Christ has loved us all. To give due honour to the Body and Blood of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament of course involves those ritual actions by which we express our faith in the real presence, but more than that, it involves living a life which expresses that mystery of God’s love for humanity in which, through the Eucharist, we share.