The Meaning of Sacrifice

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Sacrifice is a concept found quite literally everywhere in the scriptures. In fact, throughout every major story in the Bible, we find instances of sacrifices. While it is readily apparent that the concept of sacrifice finds its fulfillment, its telos, in Christ, it is not readily apparent what the meaning of sacrifice is.

Joseph Ratzinger, in his Spirit of the Liturgy, has an interesting discussion on its meaning. He begins by noticing that the “common view is that sacrifice has something to do with destruction. It means handing over to God a reality that is in some way precious” (Kindle version, loc. 250). Put another way, one way to view sacrifice is that destroying something is a means of “acknowledging God’s sovereignty over all things” (loc 250), as worshipping him as supreme over all things. 

Ratzinger however disagrees with the concept: “belonging to God has nothing to do with destruction”, he says (loc 250). Instead, he brings in Augustine’s definition of sacrifice. He says,

The true ‘sacrifice’ is the civitas Dei, that is, love-transformed mankind, the divinization of creation and the surrender of all things to God: God all in all” (loc 258).

What Ratzinger means by this is that sacrifice, rather than being about destruction, is about the giving of oneself in totality to God. It is “losing oneself” in total surrender to God, and thereby finding life in God’s own life. It is giving oneself in love to God to the point of being completely eclipsed by the divine love, and becoming “divinized” with his life.

To clarify his meaning, Ratzinger references creation: he points out rightly that creation itself is a divine act of self-giving love. God, out of the sheer gift of his own self, gives in the act of creation: he gives mankind life and creaturely freedom. And man in his freedom has two choices: he can receive this sheer gift of grace and give himself wholly back to God; or, he can retreat into himself and collapse into selfishness.

Ratzinger says,

God’s free act of creation is indeed ordered toward [a return]…Sacrifice in its essence is simply returning to love and therefore divinization (loc 313, 321)

Man as created is meant to receive God’s love and in his own gift of freedom, give himself wholly back to God’s love and life. The more he gives, the more he participates in God’s own life. So then, Adam was given creaturely freedom in order that he might give himself totally back to God. Instead, he retreated from God and preserved himself. 

This is, Ratzinger says, sin at its essence: it is the retreat of oneself into the self, into self-preservation, into finitude, into death. Ratzinger says:

Original sin, so hard otherwise to understand, is identical with the fall into finitude, which explains why it clings to everything stuck in the vortex of finitude” (loc 305).

In his fallenness, rather than giving of himself to God, man clings to himself, and collapses into “the vortex” of finiteness. This condition of finitude, or turning in toward oneself, is what every man must thus be redeemed from. He is called to sacrifice, to give of himself, and yet, he cannot! He is utterly unable, tangled in the mess of his own selfishness. And thus he destroys himself.

Consequently, this is why Israel’s animal sacrifices were so insufficient, and called for a better sacrifice: Israel sacrificed bulls and goats. At best, these offerings were a part of the self, a gift of remorse and thanksgiving. However, at worst, they were a replacement of the self, a substitution of the self. Ratzinger explains:

Temple sacrifices was always accompanied by a vivid sense of its insufficiency… Already in 1 Samuel 15:22 we meet a primordial word of prophecy that, with some variations, runs through the Old Testament before being taken up anew by Christ: “More precious than sacrifices is obedience, submission better than the fat of rams!” In Hosea the prophecy appears in this form: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings (6:6) (loc 391-99)

The blood of goats and bulls was not only insufficient, but detestable by the completion of the Old Testament, precisely because it was Israel herself that God wanted. Israel at her worst gave the sacrifices in place of herself. Their hearts were far off from God, even when offering the sacrifices! This called for a true sacrifice, which could give mankind fully to God. 

Taken into the New Testament, this is precisely why Christ’s self-sacrifice is sufficient: it is in the cross that Christ offers himself — the perfect man —  fully and without reserve to God the Father. God the Son, in the incarnation, takes humanity to himself, and offers it to God to the point of death; he gives himself in totality to the divine love, and thereby becomes divinized; or, put biblically, he is raised imperishable. Finitude no longer has a say, for the divine love has illuminated mankind through the self-offering of Christ.

This is also why Christ is called the new Adam. He is the true man, who gives himself back in love to God. And it is through this self-sacrifice that humanity is thus welcomed into the life of the Godhead. Ratzinger explains:

The vicarious sacrifice of Jesus takes us up and leads us to that likeness with God, that transformation into love, which is the only true adoration (loc 502)

Being united to his sacrifice through faith, we are brought into the life and love of God; and being united to the Godhead, we are then called to “take up our cross”, to “love ourselves not, even unto death”:

It is man, conforming himself to [Christ] and becoming [Christ] through faith, who is the true sacrifice, the true glory of God in the world” (loc 478)

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