Lent 5: ‘The Holy Sacrifice’
‘Through him we offer you our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice’
Some years ago a committee was set up to revise the liturgies of the Church of England, which eventually became what is now called ‘Common Worship.’ A friend told me how there was a discussion about leaving out the word ‘ sacrifice’ from the Eucharistic liturgies. Now there were three rather huge reasons for this: psychological, theological and linguistic.
First, psychological. Human beings have practiced the act of ritual sacrifice from the dawn of time: killing an animal or a person to pay homage to a god or to appease him, so the he may be well disposed to the people. (The technical term is ‘propitiation’). These days for many, if not all, of us, it is a revolting image of slaughter and bloodshed. This is a prehistoric ritual, surely we are not expected to think of our relationship with God in this way in the 21st century. Yet, when Christians talk about the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross they do not mean that he was crudely sacrificed as on a stone slab by some demented priests in some out-dated horror movie. He was put to death in an excruciating way by the Roman State according to Roman law. Animal sacrifices abounded at the time of Jesus and the Early Church, but Christians faced martyrdom rather than perform such sacrifices to the gods or the Emperor.
We live in a world that knows a great deal about suffering in its own way and which uses a word from the Hebrew Bible for burnt offerings or sacrifices to describe the death of millions of Jews in the concentration camps: ‘Holocaust’. The word sacrifice is a powerful metaphor for us today, and for Christians it can still speak of the power and passion of God as we are able to perceive and feel His presence in the midst of brokenness, suffering and pain.
The concept of sacrifice
Secondly, theological. At the Reformation, the Reformers wanted to get away from any sense that the Mass was a sacrifice, and so did away with all that went with that territory, including the notions of ‘priest’ and ‘altar’. They were concerned that the priest offering the ‘sacrifice of the Mass’ might be misconstrued as another propitiatory offering to appease a vengeful God: just as in Jewish Temple of old. On the contrary, for Christians the sacrifice of Jesus was once and for all: it cannot be taken away from or added to. And besides, the concept of sacrifice was not used of the Eucharist in the Bible.
Well, the Reformers were right. The Eucharist is not yet another sacrifice which some how makes us for the deficiencies of Calvary. The Mass is the celebration of the reality of Jesus Christ. The sacrifice we commemorate at the Eucharist is the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, given once and for all. However, it does more than call to mind the sacrifice of Christ, it allows us to receive what it means here and now.
It is quite wrong though, to think that the concept of sacrifice is absent from the New Testament in terms of worship. The Last Supper is charged with an atmosphere of sacrifice as Jesus goes toward His death. This after all is the Passover meal, a lamb has been slain, and as Jesus identifies the bread with His Body and the cup of wine with His blood, we know that He is the Lamb of God who is to be slain on that first Good Friday.
What seems to be happening in the New Testament is a widening of the notion of sacrifice, which had previously been too narrow and too specific. St Peter in his first letter writes, “And like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifice acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’ (1) He applies that image of the Temple, (the place where the Jews offered their animal and agricultural sacrifices to God, which had been destroyed by the Romans in AD 70) to the new community of Christians: we are now that Temple where God makes Himself known and we are to offer spiritual sacrifices. This is to be the reality of Christian worship.
In our Eucharist today you will see in the text of the prayer of consecration that it focuses on the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross: “we remember His offering of Himself made once for all upon the Cross… we celebrate with this bread and cup His one perfect sacrifice; and our own spiritual sacrifice: accept through Him our sacrifice of thanks and praise…” so that eating and drinking this sacrament we may be renewed by the Spirit, inspired with God’s love and united in the Body of Christ. In the post communion prayer we offer to God ‘our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice’ as we seek to bring His love to the world. (2)
Stabbed in the street
Thirdly, linguistic: “no one uses that word, sacrifice, anymore. It belongs to a by-gone age; people do not resonate with its implications and meaning.
The next day after the liturgical group I mentioned at the beginning had met, the media reported the murder of an Anglican priest on a housing estate in Liverpool – he had been stabbed in the street. Nearly every report featured the word ‘sacrifice’ to describe his loving commitment to that parish. People obviously knew what that word meant. It didn’t mean the obliteration of an animal to propitiate the whims of an unpredictable deity; it had something to do with love, giving up something in consideration for someone else. A parent sits at the beside of their sick child, night after night, sacrificing their own sleep and comfort, because of their love for their child.
And that is the idea of sacrifice I should like to concentrate on this morning: love for others.
When I face a class of schoolchildren who look at the Cross with some horror, I try to explain that for Christians it signals God’s love being stretched out for the good of the whole world. Not just in his death, but in his life and Resurrection, Christians see in Jesus the shape of sacrificial love and it has inspired countless Christians throughout the ages to share such Christ-live love to the marginalised, the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the oppressed. Such love is costly and involves our whole being.
Bishop Kenneth Stephenson wrote: “When the Church has gathered everything to present it to God, it realizes its utter poverty; all it can do is to put this utter poverty into the hands of Christ who taking it up into his own sacrifice presented in intercession, makes it a true praise, an efficacious prayer, a valid sacrifice, ‘ through him, with him and in him.’ (3)
There is another way of putting it. In the 18th century a Congregationalist minister of a London chapel wrote one of the great hymns of all time. Unfortunately, it is now just sung before Easter, but he had written it for the Eucharist. And in the hymn ‘When I survey the wondrous Cross’, Isaac Watts wrote those wonderful lines which captures what Kenneth Stevenson is saying about the holy sacrifice of the Eucharist:
“Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present ( offering) far too small,
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my life, my soul my all.”
What does the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass mean then?
Well, as I have tried to say it is about celebrating the sacrificial, the costly love of God, for the world. But there is a sacrifice we are called to make too.
Bishop Kenneth Stephenson again:
‘We need to recover the cost and piety of the Eucharist…. It costs to stand at that Table under the shadow of Calvary, in the faith of Easter morning, in the hope of the Kingdom dawning and bringing about a new age. It costs to turn what is often the mere verbalisation of a yet another liturgical text into the powerful context of God’s redeeming love, where healing takes place between people.” (4)
Expressing our love and concern
How do we do this? Well, says Stephenson, we ourselves need to sacrifice our attention to the Word of God. The Gospel Book is processed into the middle of the people and proclaimed with lights and incense because Christ is speaking to us – do we concentrate and hear that message which is not always obvious and apply it to our lives? The word is broken open for us. Do we receive it with open hearts? Preaching again is a sacrifice, it is a huge struggle and difficulty to communicate something about God for his world and sometimes to be open to what the Spirit is saying to us through the preacher. The prayers we offer to God in intercession are for the whole world, for people we know and people we don’t know, it is about expressing our love and concern as we come before our loving God. We give up things to be present at Mass, to be involved in the life and ministry of the Church, to do good for others – it is costly because that is loving and it involves hard work and commitment.
We make our sacrifice without hoping to incur favour with Him, but simply out of love for Him, a love which would not be possible for us to have were it not for the Holy Spirit opening us to receive it.
‘Cinema Paradiso’ is an Italian film about a famous director who grew up in a small village in Sicily just after WW2 and who as a small child makes friends with the fatherly projectionist at the cinema and helps with the changing of the reels of film. Before any film can be shown to the public it has to be seen by the priest who censors them, ringing a bell every time the wants a cut to be made. An embrace, a kiss, any kind of closeness or intimacy and that bell rings. Unfortunately, that is how most people view the Church and Christianity, as judging and censoring all this important in human love. The director who has not been back to his village for 30 years, returns to his village for the funeral of his friend the projectionist and is left a gift by him. It is a canister of film. The film ends with the director in tears as he watching all those cut out pieces from films which had been spliced together.
One of the words most often used for worship in the New Testament is the word proskynesis. It was the kind of worship reserved exclusively for God, but we find it used of Jesus. The Greek word ‘pros’ means ‘towards’ and ‘kyneo’ to kiss. It suggests intimacy and love, the language of the offering and the movement of God to humanity and humanity to God. This is what I believe Holy Sacrifice is genuinely about – the profound love of God which costs not less than everything.
I wish to end with a poem by Bill Vanstone which is also a hymn and which speaks of the Divine sacrificial love which we celebrate at the altar today.
Love that gives gives ever more,
Gives with zeal, with eager hands,
Spares not, keeps not, all outpours,
Ventures all, its all expends.
Drained is love in making full;
Bound in setting others free;
Poor in making many rich;
Weak in giving power to be.
Therefore He Who Thee reveals
Hangs, O Father, on that Tree
Helpless; and the nails and thorns
Tell of what Thy love must be.
Thou are God; no monarch Thou
Thron’d in easy state to reign;
Thou art God, Whose arms of love
Aching, spent, the world sustain. (5)
- 1 Peter 2:5
- Common Worship Eucharistic Prayer C ( traditional language)
- ‘Accept this offering’ Kenneth Stevenson ( at one time Bishop of Portsmouth)
- as above
- ‘Love’s endeavour Love’s expense’ William Vanstone. A poem and a book by Vanstone.