Many people today understand sacrifice as a practice observed exclusively in the Old Testament. Sacrifices in the form of burnt offerings and the like, were offered to God to purify the sinner and his sacred objects of worship from the uncleanness of sin and the resulting spiritual death. It was therefore an attempt to bridge the separation that sin had created between God and humanity, allowing the spiritual eye to perceive God as the Lover of humanity once again. The sacrifice was therefore understood as, essentially, a gift “from God to man” rather than the opposite.
However, the offering of sacrifices has not ceased with the establishment of the New Covenant and even until today. “How so?” you may ask. Well, it comes down to how we define sacrifice. The Hebrew term for sacrifice is ‘Korban’, meaning to draw near to God. Whilst this was always the purpose of burnt sacrifices in the Old Testament, burnt sacrifices alone were not sufficient to achieve this. They were only able to cover our sins but not bring about forgiveness. It was not able to revoke the enmity between us and our Creator; it remained “weakness and unprofitableness” (Hebrews 7:18) and hence the reason for Christ’s ultimate sacrifice on the Cross. When Christ offered Himself as the Lamb, the perfect Sacrifice, He took the punishment for our sin and so fulfilled the Law on our behalf; thereby restoring the relationship between God and His creation. Thus, the need to offer tangible sacrifices for our sins became “obsolete” (Hebrews 8:13). In the Letter to the Hebrews, St Paul says, “there is an annulling of the former commandment” (Hebrews 7:18), which included the offering of sacrifices. This was symbolised by the tearing of the temple veil in two and in Christ’s last words on the Cross, “It is finished!” (John 19:30), whereby “there is a bringing of a better hope, through which we draw near to God” (Hebrews 7:19).
Christ became the true and only acceptable sacrifice that was gifted from God to us and from us to God.
In the Church, this drawing near to God is practiced by the ‘Korban’ or bread which is converted, by the power of the Holy Spirit into Christ Himself, His Body and Blood in the mystery of the Eucharist. By partaking of Him, we are united to Him and have ‘drawn near’ to God and God has ‘drawn near’ to us. Christ says to us, “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in Him” (John 6:56). Therefore, the purpose of sacrifice today is still to draw us near to God. However, the nature of our sacrifice to God has changed. While God drew us to Himself through Christ’s Cross and Resurrection, it is up to us how we respond to this gift, and the loving communion which comes with it. If we accept the grace, forgiveness and love He offers us personally; if we desire to come after Him; then we are called to reciprocate this love towards God and our neighbour. How do we do this? By carrying our own cross, of course.
By carrying our cross we are sharing in the true sacrifice of Christ and hence God is drawing near to us and we are to Him, “For to this you were called…that you should follow in His steps” (1 Peter 2:21). In other words, just as Christ sacrificed Himself for us, we are called to sacrifice ourselves for Christ and our brother.
In the Epistle to the Romans, St Paul urges us saying, “I beseech you…present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service” (Romans 12:1). In our everyday lives, such sacrifice takes many forms. It is any thought, word or deed (no matter how small) by which we place others above ourselves, and indeed sacrifice ourselves – to willingly lay down our pride, our ego, our desires – for the sake of Christ and our brother. Sacrifice is visiting the sick. It is waking up early on a Sunday to meet with Christ and to be received by Christ in His Body, the Church. It is going the extra mile without being asked. It is turning the other cheek. It is accepting criticism humbly. It is showing kindness to the outcast. It is praying for our brothers and sisters, sharing both in their sufferings and in their joys. It is being still and acknowledging that He is God. It is thanking God in every occasion, every condition and for all things. It is even giving ourselves to another in marriage. It is taking our salvation seriously. Through all these things, sacrifice draws us nearer and nearer to the restored image and likeness of God and God is drawing nearer and nearer to us to restore our brokenness. This is reiterated in the letter of St James, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (James 4:8). Here we see that carrying our Cross through sacrifice is not a heavy burden, as it is so often portrayed to be, but an opportunity to draw near to our heavenly Father.
In contrast to the Old Testament sacrifices, no longer do we worship in a particular place; “neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem”, but “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23). And as we are offering our very selves as sacrifices, our bodies are “the temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19). Just as the altar on which the Eucharist is placed is consecrated, so too must our bodies be consecrated to God: “You shall therefore consecrate yourselves, and you shall be holy; for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44). In Psalm 51, David reveals the type of sacrifice God desired from us from the beginning: “For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit. A broken and contrite heart – These, O God, You will not despise.” (Psalm 51:16-17)
Sacrifice is also the life of repentance. When we entreat Him at our lowest and weakest point, we surrender to Him our will and desires, our hearts, minds, souls and spirits. We acknowledge our weaknesses and sinful nature, and we ask Him to heal and forgive us. When we struggle, strive against our sins, and die with Christ, we are also raised with Him each time we fall; living and reliving His death and resurrection daily. And this is far more precious to God than any Old Testament sacrifice: “Let my prayer be set before You as incense, The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” (Psalm 141:2)
So, my friends, we see that the nature of sacrifice has changed and sacrifice changes our very nature. As the Priest entreats us in the Divine Liturgy in asking “Where are your hearts?”, we must also continually ask ourselves this question. May our sacrifice always be that “our hearts are with the Lord”.
SAYG ~ anonymous.
We ask that you please remember those who joyfully offer their silent sacrifice in your prayers.