The Centrality of Sacrifice

If you’ve seen Mel Gibson’s film Apocolypto you’ll remember the pretty graphic scenes of human sacrifice. Most primitive religions featured human sacrifice and ritualistic cannibalism in some form or other at some point. The logic was pretty simple: to appease the gods you gave them something valuable. What would they like? Life. How do you give them life? The life is in the blood, so you have to shed blood. What life is best? Pretty young virgins, lovely children, strong young warriors. You get the idea.

The Jews were given a get out. They could sacrifice animals instead of their children. This was the main lesson that came out of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac: God said human sacrifice was un-necessary. So the Jews developed their sacrificial system, but even in the Old Testament God was indicating that this was insufficient. “Do you think I eat the flesh of goats and bullocks?” he asks.
Then he sends his Son as the one, full, final sacrifice. Suddenly all other sacrifices have meaning. They were pointers to this one human sacrifice to end all human sacrifices. The Mass is the proper re-presentation of that one, full, final sacrifice. It brings into the present moment that timeless moment and applies that benefit to one and all.
Now the problem with modern Catholicism is that modern people, thinking that human sacrifice is really rather horrific, and that the wanton, ritualistic slaughter of animals is also rather gruesome, have chucked out the religious concept of sacrifice altogether. The modernists saw it as superstitious, bloodthirsty, primitive and barbaric. The considered themselves to have moved on from such superstitious concepts as placating rather petulant and cruel gods, and wanted a different model for understanding the Mass.
The other model was there. In the Bible we have the Almighty making covenants with his people. The ancients sealed these covenants with a ritual meal. The Jews had lots of ritual meals. The Passover was just one. So this model of covenant, ritual, fellowship meal took precedence in the theology that preceded the Second Vatican Council.
Now the main model for the Mass was the ritual fellowship meal of the people of God. The focus shifted from a memorial of Christ’s death on the cross to a memorial of the Last Supper. The Mass was not so much a re-presentation and application of Christ’s death, but a re-living of the Last Supper, with us as Jesus disciples and the priest as an alter-Christus presiding at the Last Supper.
If this was to be the model, then of course it made sense for the priest to go around to the other side of the altar (now called the Communion Table) and face the people. He was no longer the priest offering the sacrifice with and for the people, but he was the Father presiding at the family meal rather like Daddy standing up to ceremonially carve the roast beef for family dinner.
This change of position was nowhere legislated by the Fathers of the Council. In fact, the rubrics of the Novus Ordo Mass assume that the priest is still facing East with his back to the people, praying with them and for them. That’s why at the “Pray brethren that our sacrifice…” and the “Behold the Lamb of God” the rubrics instruct the priest to ‘turn and face the people’.
In the wake of this theological change everything else changed. Churches became big round meeting halls in which the people met for the fellowship meal. The introit became the ‘gathering song.’ The hymns changed content from worship of God and meditation on the Divine Sacrifice to songs about us and our community and how we felt about God and how we were going to change the world.
What happened when sacrifice went out the stained glass window? We lost an understanding of God himself, for sacrifice is woven into the very warp and woof of creation. Sacrifice is the character of God himself, for just as the blood flows out of the sacrifice, so God’s Divine Love flows from him at all times. This Divine Love is the energy of all creation, it is the force that ‘moves the sun and the other stars’. It is the energy that binds together the three members of the Holy Trinity. Sacrifice is the outpouring of one’s life and one’s love, and without sacrifice Christianity is reduced to a club of people who sing songs together, and talk about how they are going to make the world a better place.
When we start to understand the proper place of sacrifice in the whole cosmos, we will start again to understand the sacrifice of the Mass, and when that happens everything else in our liturgy architecture, music, prayer and spirituality should fall back into place.
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  • I don’t believe it is a case of either or; the Last Supper or Calvary. It is both and. Our liturgies should provide both, and sometimes one needs to be brought to the forefront but never exclusively.

  • Our liturgy does provide both in the old (extraordinary) form, Robert. The priest faces the altar, east, back to the people to offer the sacrifice to God, then faces the people to offer Holy Communion to them.In the new liturgy we are deprived of the one. The priest faces the table and the people to carve the roast. Eucharistic prayers are often covered over by communal singing, hand-shaking and hugging, during which the priest elevates the host briefly, then tosses it on the paten, and like good children, we recite grace before eating.Our church here is an ugly carpeted quanset hut. I have not worshipped God at Mass in years. I go to fulfill my Sunday obligation. Worship of God is possible now only in creation (his–not ours).Interesting post, father. Much talk these days of what the Council fathers “had in mind,” but I ask you: does that matter? It’s by their fruit that we shall know them. And the fruit of Vatican 2 has been literally toxic. What they “had in mind” was just what they said: the Council’s stated purpose was actually to accommodate modernism. Anyone who loved and wanted his ancient and beautiful mother and not this glitzy false stepmother was abused, persecuted, driven away–often literally. Well. You swapped God’s Church and his faithful for the approval of the world. Did you get what you wanted?

  • The change is also reflected in the text of the Mass of Paul VI, as a comparison between the deeply sacrificial Offertory prayers in the traditional Rite and the new prayerswill show.

  • As a recent ex-Protestant, I knew all about the ritual fellowship supper approach, but it never occurred to me that this way of thinking had become dominant in popular Catholicism. Now I understand why people have such weird attitudes towards Mass – trying to mix two ideas that, as Mr. Sheehan said, should be complimentary, but instead are made to conflict.

  • I didn’t know that when the priest faces East in the NO he would turn back to the faithful at certain moments. The lack of it in the EF is a great put off for me. This new information for me makes me rethink my objection to facing East, as I assumed that it was like in the EF, never turning to the faithful with the Lamb of God in his hands.May Paul VI pray for us.

  • Wonderful way for putting it all together. Thanks, Fr. D!

  • In his book “Jesus of Nazareth” Papa Benni seems to think the evangelist’s symbols of water, bread, vine/wine are more all-encompassing than how we “think” when sharing that moment in time at the consecration (whatever direction the celebrant choses to stand at the altar). not the same metaphor of communio as Paul’s of being one body, BXvi teaches that we are shoots of the same root, that our fruits are to yield the same juices to be fermented into the festal offertory drink. The sacrifice need not be violent like Abel or Christ, but it must be purified and sweet, not sour grapes! Please: less divisions in Christendom, particularly in the United States! Sing love, joy, peace harmonies at the Wedding Banquet, not peal the bells of polluted dissent of “the great divorce” as you vacate your pews to take the “good news” to the poor. All those suffering souls in our culture of death need not simply a harsh moralism of cathartic ablutions, but a the sweet enebriation of a life lived for a greater good than our own accomplishments – life is beautiful when Love himself is imbibed! CheerioClare Krishan

  • Augustine,The two examples that Fr. Longenecker cites (the “Orate Fratres” and the “Ecce Agnus Dei” are the exact same in the EF and the OF. The “Ecce Agnus Dei” is precisely the moment at which the priest “[turns] to the faithful with the Lamb of God in his hands.”

  • Great post. I think you dealt with this a lot in More Christianity, or another book. I was in Japan and a man asked me if Christmas was for God or for us – he couldn’t understand why we give gifts to ourselves to celebrate God’s birthday. I couldn’t give him a great answer, but quoted Jesus’ “Whatsoever you do..” His question echoed my question of the ancient Greeks and sacrifices where they ate the meat – I thought they weren’t supposed to because it was for the gods.I really think sacrifice needs to be explained more completely to us moderns, who have so much that the concept seems hard to grasp.Thanks, Father

  • Both/and.Christ our Pascha has been sacrificed, therefore, let us keep the feast!–St. Paul

  • Well yes, it’s “both/and,” but Fr. Dwight is right — most people have lost touch with the whole sacrifice bit. Most of us find the idea of sacrificing anything (a goat, much less a human being) to be horrific, if not so bizarre we can’t even be horrified by it. But without understanding the idea of sacrifice, you are left with the communal meal. And in comparison, the communal meal is not all that compelling.

  • question almost unrelated to this post. 😀 What is that picture? I LOVE it, but they only place I can find it is on a couple of other blogs, but no info. Any idea who did it or anything? Thanks!

  • “sacrifice is woven into the very warp and woof of creation. Sacrifice is the character of God himself … “How hard do you want to be seen as arguing for the proposition that the centrality of sacrifice is one of those inevitable things that is just inherent in the design and operation of the created order (i.e. that it is some kind of categorical imperative), versus a perhaps somewhat weaker proposition that sacrifice would not have been altogether logical and obvious to our unenlightened minds, but for the fact that God simply chose to have His plan of redemption operate that way, and then He chose to reveal that plan to us in some ways that could overcome our ignorance and natural presuppositions, like through the words of the prophets and apostles and all, animated by the Holy Spirit? I think you are correct that the modern mind has been taught to have an aversion towards towards sacrifice, and this translates into a resistance to the first proposition, as representing an obsolete, barbaric conception of God and the creation. But I wonder: is it possible for the Church to still teach the second proposition, without feeling the necessity of constantly hammering on the first? That is, can we have modernism’s disaffection with blood sacrifice, and steer the emphasis in our religion away from anything that would remind people too readily of the savagery of the Aztecs, and by degrees moderate those aspects of the liturgy that embraced the bloody sacrifice a little too heartily, without altogether arriving in the end at the woeful supper club situation that you have described? OK, so accepting that sacrifice needs to be emphasized as central, is it not possible that some of us have, at times, emphasized sacrifice just a little too much?