Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Living Sacrifice

Twenty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Every dimension of human existence can, and often does, require sacrifices. There are certain things that we have to give up, that are taken away from us, and so forth. But according to the great 4th century Doctor of the Church, St Augustine, no sacrifice could properly be termed a “sacrifice” unless if it is offered to God. “A true sacrifice is anything that we do with the aim of being united to God in holy fellowship – anything that is that is directed towards that supreme good and end in which alone we can be truly blessed. It follows that even an act of compassion towards men is not a sacrifice, if it is not done for the sake of God. Although it is performed by man, sacrifice is still a divine thing, as the Latin word indicates: “sacrum facere”, “holy-doing” or “holy-making”. Only God can “make holy.”

Today, St Paul exhorts us in the second reading to offer our bodies as “living sacrifices”. What could he mean by this? The language is of a sacrificial ritual well known to the Jews. Under the Old Covenant, God accepted the sacrifices of animals. Notice that the priests were offering dead sacrifices, not living sacrifices. According to the ritual, those offerings, or at least parts of them, had to be destroyed. By destroying them – burning them on the altar, for example, or giving them to the priests, who had no farms or land of their own – faithful Israelites acknowledged that those good gifts, and their own lives which depended on those gifts, belonged first and foremost to God. The sacrifices, then, were a form of worship. In all cases, ritual sacrifices provided a way for believers to bring themselves, their work, and their communities into communion with God, to make them holy.

Instead of offering ritual sacrifices of grain and bulls in order to gain God’s favours, which is what happened in the Old Covenant, Christians are now called to a different mode of worship. In the old mode of worship, good things were destroyed. But this would be different in the New Covenant. The sacrifice which Christians are expected to make would be significantly different from that of the Old Covenant - the human body is not presented to be slain, rather they are to be “living sacrifices”. Thank God for that! The body which is the temple of the Holy Spirit, the dwelling place of Christ is to be presented to God, constantly, day after day. St Paul is commanding his readers to totally give themselves up to God. God asks for total, not partial, devotion—body and soul. We either acknowledge Him as Lord of our entire lives, or we deny him as Lord of any part of it.

For Christians, the ultimate paradigm of sacrifice is Christ. In fact all those sacrifices of old were only shadows of the one true sacrifice, Jesus’ self-offering on the Cross. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary has an eternal dimension and wide ranging implications: it achieves the forgiveness of sins, it roots us more deeply in Christ, it glorifies God most perfectly, and we brought into the love of God by the Holy Spirit. And it was Christ’s sacrifice that makes us holy, not because of anything we can do or earn, but simply because God in his mercy has offered us this grace. In the New Covenant, then, the role of sacrifice has changed. Christ’s sacrifice is now the source of our entering into a right relationship with God.

We are called not to earn God’s mercy by our offerings, but to express our gratitude and our love for God’s mercy – which we have already received through our faith in Christ’s definitive sacrifice on Calvary – through our new way of life. This new way of life, this new life in Christ (the life of the Beatitudes, the life exemplified by the saints) has become our way of deepening our union with God and worshipping him. It is a new way of life based on the commandment of love and at the heart of love is sacrifice. Instead of the ritual sacrifices of the Old Covenant, we are now engaged in the great adventure of making our entire lives into a living sacrifice, an entire life “made holy” in Christ to give glory to God and to lead us to the fulfilment of everlasting union with him in heaven. Growth in discipleship is ultimately growth in the Imitation of Christ: becoming more Christ-like in our thoughts and actions. And that involves sacrifice and hard work. Christian existence, if lived in imitation of Christ, is thereby both a sermon to the world and a sacrifice for the world, since Christians have their share in Christ’s self-sacrifice for the world. Jesus invites us to say a definite “Yes” to the scandal of the cross.

This is the reason why St Peter in today’s gospel takes offense at the cross. He doesn’t only represent the whole of humanity but many of us Christians who wish to escape suffering as much and as long as possible. Thomas A Kempis, the Christian writer of ‘The Imitation of Christ’ commented that: "Many come following Jesus who love his heavenly kingdom but few come looking forward to suffering. Many admire His miracles but few follow Him in humiliation to the cross." How true that is for us too: we admire Jesus, we admire his teaching, we glory in his love for us, but we are far more reticent to accept the humiliation of the cross for ourselves. But that is what is demanded of us. All religions outside of Christianity respond in some way to the problem of suffering by laying out a plan – how can a man flee suffering? In radical contrast, Christ became man in order to suffer, to suffer more than any other person ever has suffered. By inviting St Peter and all of us to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses to follow him, Jesus spells out the paradox of the gospel, that salvation does not consist in eliminating your “I”, as the Buddhist and other esoteric religions would hold, but in sacrificing your “I” for others, which cannot take place without the cross.

As Christ invites us to follow him by denying ourselves and taking up our crosses, in making this unworthy sacrifice of ourselves, we hear not a fearsome challenge to immolate ourselves as a bloody sacrifice as in the past. Rather, what we would hear from him would be closer to the words of the great homilist, St Peter Chrysologus, who tells us that this is what Christ wishes to say to us, “Do not be afraid. This cross inflicts a mortal injury, not on me, but on death. These nails no longer pain me, but only deepen your love for me. I do not cry out because of these wounds, but through them I draw you into my heart. My body was stretched on the cross as a symbol, not of how much I suffered, but of my all-embracing love. I count it no less to shed my blood: it is the price I have paid for your ransom. Come, then, return to me and learn to know me as your father, who repays good for evil, love for injury, and boundless charity for piercing wounds.”

By our lives of sacrifice, we share in the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary. In the sacrifice of the Mass, we perpetuate, make present, and apply the continuing effects of Jesus' once-for-all sacrifice on the cross. In summary, our lives in Christ are lives of sacrifice centred on Jesus' sacrifice on Calvary, which continues to be present through the sacrifice of the Mass. Now, as we come to the foot of the cross, it’s with a new sense of commitment, a new sense of affirmation that we come.  We want to offer ourselves, each of us, in his and her own heart, a living sacrifice – soul, body, mind, will to God.  This is our prayer and desire even as we come to the table of the Eucharist this morning/ evening.

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