Passion Sunday Sermon: Sacrifice

March 18, 2018
Source: Séminaire Ecône

Christ being come a High Priest of the good things to come. (Heb 9:11)

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My Dear Brethren,

On first reading, the epistle of today’s Mass appears rather mysterious. The concepts of priesthood, sacrifice, purification by blood and covenant are evoked, but not in a clear manner for all. Perhaps it was the impulsive enthusiasm of St. Paul: he couldn’t contain himself when he had so many marvels to communicate. The key to understanding this part of his epistle to the Hebrews is a clear understanding of the notion of sacrifice.

Sacrifice is part of natural religion

The verb to sacrifice is derived from two Latin words: sacrum (holy) and facere (to make). To sacrifice a gift is to “make holy” the gift, which means to “set apart” the gift, which means to give it irreversibly to someone.

In its strictest sense, the verb to sacrifice means to offer a sense-perceptible gift to the Deity as an outward manifestation of our veneration for Him and with the object of attaining communion with Him.

The noun sacrifice is either the name given to the whole sacrificial action (e.g. “We go to see the sacrifice.”) or the name given to the gift offered in sacrifice.

Strictly speaking, an act of offering does not become a sacrifice until a real change has been effected in the visible gift (e.g. by slaying it, shedding its blood. burning it, or pouring it out) so that it becomes unusable to man.

It is a natural act of religion because, just as it is natural for us to offer a gift as a testimony of our affection of gratitude (or if we want something), the same is true in our relation with God.

Corruption of the pagan sacrifices

Fallen human nature corrupted the notion of sacrifice throughout the ages and throughout the world. In the Old Testament, we hear of the child sacrifices to the god Moloch. In India, sacrifice was part of the vedic religion: the victims were first men, then horses, then cattle, then goats, then rice cakes and barley. In Mexico, the Aztecs offered human sacrifices (even as many as 10,000 in a day) until the Spanish conquistadors mercifully put an end to it in the 16th century. The same is true for the Incas of Peru.

Old Testament sacrifice

We learn from the Epistle to the Hebrews that the sacrifices of the Mosaic law had in themselves no value or efficacy. They were only the "shadow of good things to come," and pointed the worshippers forward to the coming of the great High Priest, who, in the fullness of the time, "was offered once for all to bear the sin of many."

Sacrifices according to the Mosaic law belonged to a temporary economy, to a system of types and emblems which served their purposes and have now passed away. The "one sacrifice for sins" hath "perfected for ever them that are sanctified." There were two categories, unbloody sacifices and bloody sacrifices.

When unbloody sacrifices were offered, such as first-fruits and tithes; meat and drink-offerings; and incense, at least a portion was always burnt as a memorial (askara, memoriale) for Jahweh; the rest belonged to the priests, who consumed it as sacred food in the outer court (Leviticus 2:9 sq.; 5:12 sq.; 6:16).

The bloody sacrifices were either burnt-offerings (holocaust = total submission), peace-offerings or sin-and-trespass-offerings (remission and satisfaction of sins). The ritual of the bloody sacrifice is of special importance. Five actions were common to all the categories:

  • the bringing forward of the victim;
  • the imposition of hands, (the sacrificer transferred to the victim his personal intention of adoration, thanksgiving, petition, and especially of atonement);
  • the slaying;
  • the sprinkling of the blood;
  • and the burning.

The blood, since it is considered as bearing the life of the victim, represents or symbolises the soul or life of man. The sprinkling of blood on the altar is therefore the offering of (the sacrificer's) life upon the altar - it is the essence of the sacrificial action, the sprinkling of blood on the people is the application of the purifying effects of the sacrifice. 

New Testament Sacrifice

In the New Testament, there is only one sacrifice: it is the Sacrifice of Calvary. In this Sacrifice, the Priest is Jesus Christ, the Victim is Jesus Christ, the Deity is the One True God who is Jesus Christ, and the altar is Jesus Christ.

This is the perfect Sacrifice, a bloody Sacrifice in which the Victim took upon Himself all the sins of the world. He substituted Himself for us two thousand years ago, but the Sacrifice is not consigned to the past. This same Sacrifice is made present every time Mass is offered, but in a sacramental way, hidden from the senses.

Passiontide

We have come here today, not only to be witnesses to this Sacrifice, but also to insert ourselves into the Sacrifice as priest and victim and to share in its fruits which is union with God. We are here to become Christ, to become His living members so that, as St. Paul says, they who have been called may receive eternal inheritance according to the promise, in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We have now entered upon the time of Passiontide in which we are called to unite ourselves with this Sacrifice more closely, by remembering the historical events of the Sacrifice in its bloody manifestation on Calvary. Beside the the Blessed Virgin Mary is the best vantage point, kneeling at the foot of the Cross is the best posture. Let us ask the graces through her hands that we may gladly share in His Sacrifice as both victim and also as High Priest of the good things to come. +