Have you found out what sacrifice is?” asked the pastor when the religious education instructor had herded her charges back into the front pews. “Yes,” she answered triumphantly, “sacrifice means giving up what you love.” I groaned in frustration, but the pastor clucked approvingly, and turned to the altar to celebrate the Sacrifice of the Mass.
This took place in a parish church in Germany a few years ago, but it could have happened in any number of churches across the world. For when it comes to sacrifice, few ideas are so poorly understood, even by the best teachers and catechists.
A common definition of sacrifice is “a gift to God in which the gift is destroyed or consumed.” Symbolizing the internal offering of commitment and surrender to God, its purpose is to acknowledge the dominion of God, effect reconciliation with God and give thanks for blessings or petition for further blessings. This isn’t bad. It may be what most people think of when they hear the word “sacrifice.” But as a definition of Christian sacrifice, it is a disaster. Why? Because when Jesus Christ invited us into the paschal mystery, he did away with this kind of sacrifice.
To begin with the religions of the world, in which the destruction of a gift or victim is the essential characteristic of sacrifice, and then try to verify this in the sacrifice of Christ and in Christian sacrifice—this is completely and disastrously backwards. Essentially, it is asking non-Christian sacrifice to tell us what Christian sacrifice is. For example, in the bitter battles over the “sacrifice of the Mass” in the 16th century, Catholics tried to prove and Protestants tried to disprove that there was real destruction of a victim in the celebration of the Eucharist. Unfortunately, both sides were working backward, asking the wrong questions. Neither side began, as it should have, by asking what it was that the early Christians were pointing toward when, hesitatingly at first, they began to use sacrificial terms to speak of the Christ-event, Christian life and the Eucharist.
How then can sacrifice be understood on its own terms as the Christ-event and as the way to enter into the paschal mystery? The Christian answer begins with the central belief of Christianity, the mystery of the Trinity, and with the central act of Christianity, the Eucharist.
The Trinitarian View of Sacrifice
Christian sacrifice has three interconnected “moments.” It begins not with us, but with the self-offering of God the Father in the gift of the Son. The second moment is the totally free, totally loving response of the Son in his humanity. The third moment—and only here does Christian sacrifice become real—takes place when the rest of humanity, in the Spirit, begins to be taken up into that self-offering, self-giving relationship of Father and Son.
This is the essence of Christian sacrifice; it is as close as we can come to a definition of it. Everything else is details. But since the love of God is in the details, let us look more closely.
The first moment is the self-offering of the Father. We cannot remind ourselves too often that nothing begins with us; everything begins with God (see 1 Jn 4:10: “not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son”). But what begins with God is the Father’s self-offering initiative in the gift of the Son. It is the Father giving himself; it is not the Father “giving up what he loves”; and above all, it is not something that the Father does to the Son. And since all Christian sacrifice begins here, sacrifice is never just giving up something, and above all never something that somebody does to somebody else. If it is, it is simply not Christian. What happens between the Father and the Son is totally free, totally loving, totally mutual self-giving. Thus, when women reject “sacrifice” because patriarchal cultures have preached it in order to keep women subservient, it is definitely not Christian sacrifice that they are rightly rejecting.
The second moment is the self-offering “response” of the Son in his humanity and in the power of the Holy Spirit. I write “response” in quotation marks to call attention to the way language can veil as well as unveil. For “response” suggests at least a slight sense of opposition or challenge. But there is nothing of that in the totally self-communicating, mutual relationship of Father and Son. We know that from our experience of human love, even if only vicariously through film and literature. For whenever authentic human love approaches fulfillment, all sense of opposition or challenge fades as, more and more, two become one. The words “in his humanity” remind us of the scholastic teaching that the human life of Jesus is the instrumental cause, or “hinge,” of our salvation. This, of course, includes Christ’s resurrection and sending of the Spirit. But since Christians usually see the sacrifice of Christ as referring especially to his passion and death on the cross, we must look at that more closely.
At this point the temptation is strong to approach things backward: that is, to allow non-Christian sacrifice with its emphasis on destruction of a victim to interpret, and thus veil, the deeper meaning of the sacrifice of Christ. For one can easily find in the death of Christ many of the common characteristics of sacrifice in other religions—for example, its material, its agents and its recipients.
Looked at in this backward way, i.e., focusing first on the gift that is destroyed, the sacrificial material is the body of Jesus tortured to death. But seen from within, as a Trinitarian event, the primary sacrificial material (the word is used here only analogously) is the perfectly free, responsive, self-giving, self-communicating, en-Spirited love of the Son to the Father and also to and for us. This is the ultimate and central meaning of the sacrifice of Christ; it is something that traditional theology tries to express when speaking of unbloody sacrifice or sacramental presence in the Eucharist.
In the same way, the agents of the sacrifice of the cross would seem, at least outwardly, to be some Roman and Jewish officials, or perhaps even Jesus staging his own death, or the Father who “did not spare his own Son” (Rom 8:32). And the agents of the sacrifice of the Mass would seem to be its ritual ministers (including, with liturgical reform, the assembly). But, again, looked at from within as a Trinitarian event, the agents are, first, the persons of the Trinity, and then the liturgical assembly as a concrete historical realization, in this particular time and place, of the body of Christ now, in the power of the Spirit, ratifying its covenantal, marital relationship with God.
Finally, who would be the recipients of the sacrificial action? More than 2,000 years ago, Greek religious philosophy pointed out the absurdity of trying to offer something to God. And when we see the sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Mass as a Trinitarian event, we see that, strictly speaking, there are no recipients. Nothing—i.e., no thing—is being given to anyone. In other words, as both the liturgical theologian Edward Kilmartin, S.J., and the anthropologist René Girard have pointed out, sacrifice, in this ordinary, history-of-religions sense of the word, was done away with by what God was doing in Jesus Christ.
The third moment is the self-offering of the faithful. Only with this moment does Christian sacrifice (as distinct from the sacrifice of Christ, from which, of course, it cannot be separated) become real. Here again, words veil as well as unveil. For strictly speaking, this is not something that the faithful do. Rather it is what happens when, in the power of the same Spirit that was in Jesus, we are taken up into the totally free, totally loving, totally self-communicating, mutual love of Father, Son and Spirit. This is also what happens in human love. For we do not experience falling in love as something that we do, but as something that happens to us, that lifts us out of ourselves and transports us, however fleetingly, to a place of supreme fulfillment—a foretaste of heaven.
Sacrifice and the Eucharist
To understand the Eucharist, the sacrifice of the Mass, we should, as Edward Kilmartin suggests, see it as a marriage ceremony. We attend to what the church is saying and doing at this moment of intimate contact that takes place between the church and her divine covenant partner. Seeing the Eucharist as a marriage ceremony also helps us make the connection between the Eucharist and the rest of our lives. For just as a marriage that stops with the ceremony never becomes a real marriage, so too a Eucharist that stops with the celebration in church never becomes a real Eucharist.
Unfortunately, many actual celebrations of the Eucharist veil as much as they unveil the mystery that is, or should be, taking place. So, here too, we must examine the details.
In all the classical eucharistic prayers (from the dialogue preface to the Great Amen) that come from antiquity and still shape what we do today, it is clear that the primary ritual agent of what is being said and done is the liturgical assembly. The presider never speaks in his own voice, never as one apart from the assembly and never as a mediator between God and the assembly.
In this prayer the assembly addresses God the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. It begins by giving praise and thanks for the gifts of creation, covenant and redemption in a crescendo that leads to the presider quoting the words of Jesus instituting the Eucharist the night before he died. It is critically important to note that these words are not performative. What is taking place is not happening “by the action of the priest,” as a popular hymn used to put it, but by the action of the Holy Spirit.
So what actually is happening, not just here at the quoting of Jesus’ words of institution, but throughout the prayer and action of the Eucharist?
Two interlocking transformations are taking place. The assembly prays for the Holy Spirit to come and sanctify both the gifts of bread and wine and the assembly itself. Confident that this transformation of the assembly is at least beginning to take place—it will be complete only at the end of time—the assembly prays for the needs of the church and the world, and then prepares to approach and, as St. Augustine put it, to receive what it already is, the body of Christ.
When we ask why these transformations are taking place, it becomes strikingly clear that the transformation of the bread and wine into the body of Christ is not for its own sake but for the sake of the transformation of the assembly into the true and living body of Christ. The whole purpose of what is taking place is not simply that the eucharistic body of Christ be made present on this or that altar. The purpose is for the assembly to become more fully transformed into the ecclesial body of Christ, or, as we have been arguing here, to be taken up more completely into the totally free, totally loving and totally self-communicating, mutual love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Take this away, and eucharistic presence becomes meaningless.
A Pastoral Suggestion
If Christian sacrifice means being taken up into the totally free, perfectly self-communicating, mutual love of Father, Son and Spirit, should we use a word, sacrifice, that is so freighted with negative connotations that it effectively veils this marvelous reality? On the other hand, we do not have the option of totally eliminating the word. David N. Power, O.M.I. among others, pointed this out to us decades ago. My suggestion is to begin with people’s actual experiences of true Christian sacrifice and only then, if ever, use the word itself.
Anyone who has had some experience of self-giving love—whether from parents or caregivers, spouses, teachers or friends—can at least begin to imagine what the self-giving love of God is. If we begin with these experiences, the experiences that make us human and give us an inkling of ultimate human fulfillment, we are pointing out to people, without using the word, that Christian sacrifice is already present in their lives. They already know, without anyone having to tell them, that this is the most beautiful thing in their lives, the most beautiful thing that they can hope for. From that awareness—for suffering passes while love remains—they will more easily put into perspective the difficult and painful things that generally accompany self-giving love. They will see that it is the self-giving love and not the suffering that accompanies it that is the essence of the sacrifice of Christ. They will be able to see that it is the self-giving love that they share with others that is the essence of their own sacrifice. Sacrifice will have been unveiled.