Friday, 16 October 2009

The nature of Sacrifice.

"True sacrifices are acts of compassion to ourselves or others, done with God in mind. Such acts have no other object than the relief of distress or the giving of happiness. Finally, the only true happiness is the one the psalmist speaks of: but for myself, I take joy in clinging to God. From all this it follows that the whole redeemed city (that is to say, the congregation or community of the saints) is offered to God as our sacrifice through the great High Priest who offered himself to God for us so that we might be the body belonging to so great a head. He took on the form of a servant and suffered for us. It was under this form that he both offered and was offered: at the same time mediator, and priest, and sacrifice.

St Paul starts by exhorting us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, as an act of homage justly owed to him. He tells us not to con-form ourselves to the world but to be trans-formed by renewing our will and our thinking: seeking to find out the will of God, to discover what is good, what is acceptable, what is perfect; for we ourselves are the whole of that sacrifice. He continues: In the light of the grace I have received I want to urge each one among you not to exaggerate his real importance. Each of you must judge himself soberly by the standard of the faith God has given him. Just as each of our bodies has several parts and each part has a separate function, so all of us, in union with Christ, form one body, and as parts of it we belong to each other. Our gifts differ according to the grace given us.

This is the sacrifice of Christians: we, being many, are one body in Christ. And, as the faithful know, this also is the sacrifice which the Church continually celebrates in the sacrament of the altar, in which she teaches that she herself is offered in the offering she makes to God."

From St Augustine, The City of God.

That phrase "a single, holy, living sacrifice" has always slightly puzzled me. I never interpreted it the Old Testament sense of involving an animal, but that definition of an "act of compassion to ourselves or others done with God in mind" makes good sense. It is something done to achieve a result for ourselves or others and the Eucharist as a compassionate act is a powerful image, catching that sense of what Jesus did on the last night of his earthly life. Not just fulfilling a religious obligation, but acting to give his disciples a lasting memento and sign of his presence, which they could return to regularly to draw inspiration and strength. That was a supremely compassionate act.

But what intrigues me with Augustine's thinking is the idea that a sacrificial act can be one which benfeits ourselves: the idea is new to me, but a useful and comforting one. Sacrificing the false God of self-hatred is ok. That can be a living sacrifice if it is done with God in mind rather than to get God out of our mind. The greatest sacrifice of all is the burning of our false Gods in the furnace of the true and living God, who desires our highest good and calls us to be committed to following the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

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