Remembering Which Sacrifice?

Remembering Which Sacrifice? May 29, 2016

It’s an easy temptation, wherever the false doctrine of exceptionalism is rife, to treat national holidays as liturgical ones, especially when they happen to occur in proximity.  So let us be reminded: today, the universal Church celebrates the feast of the body and blood of Christ.  Not anything else.

The universality of the Church’s feasts, and of the Eucharist itself, is a necessary guard against the imperial tendency to think ourselves the center of the world, including the Church.  Various countries may have their own particular days to memorialize those killed in war, but these stories are not the Church’s story.  The Church’s story is the Christ-event, which continues in our Lord’s living presence to us at the Eucharistic table, celebrated today by millions of Catholics around the world.  The Church’s memorial is to come to this table, and by so doing, to “proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.”

It is the body and blood of Christ received in the Eucharist, moreover, that unify the body as Church, bringing us into communion with one another.  Not only does this communion include Christians whose countries have fought and killed one another; by consequence it includes Christians whose countries have constructed sometimes-conflicting narratives that try to make sense of those deaths.

On a certain level, the search for meaning in death is a natural part of grief.  When we’re looking for a reason to believe our loved ones did not die in vain, the easiest thing, if they were members of the armed forces, is to seek solace in the vaguely heroic-sounding vocabulary that the national narrative provides.

Thinking of this, I was particularly struck at Mass this morning by the word “sacrifice”.  The sacrifice the Church celebrates in the Eucharist is of a profoundly different nature from the sacrifice the State celebrates in its narrative of war, as Michael Iafrate once eloquently pointed out before my time here. Granted, there is some room for debate on the extent to which these different sacrifice narratives are mutually exclusive, but there is a definite point at which they clash: their claims to primacy.  That is why Christians cannot assent to, much less baptize, the invocation of anything as “the ultimate sacrifice” other than the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

There are, of course, other sacrifices that are more conformed to his, both in the daily dying to self to which he calls us all who would follow him, and more noticeably, when his followers lay down their lives, without taking lives, for his sake.  I heard the deacon tell a story in this morning’s homily of an Englishwoman who was martyred for her belief in the Eucharist and housing of priests.  I thought also of Oscar Romero, martyred at the very altar of Christ’s sacrifice.  Deaths like these are united to Christ’s because they necessarily follow it: there is an element of humility. By contrast, while the word “sacrifice” shows up frequently in the narrative of nationalism, the word “humility” is decidedly absent.

The State can and will celebrate its own narrative.  We can’t escape its presence, and I’m not suggesting we try.  But as Christians we must never, ever confuse it with salvation history, nor set any other sacrifice equal to or above the one we celebrate in the Eucharist.  To do so can have no other name than idolatry.

May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands, for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and for the good of all his holy church.

This is truly the ultimate sacrifice.  There is no other.




Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • yes yes and yes! Unfortunately, worship at my parish this weekend ended with the Battle Hymn of the Republic probably to avoid making some people upset. But people should not be upset that we worship Christ on the feast of his Body and Blood that was poured for all, not just Americans – not just the “allies”.

    • Julia Smucker

      Lord have mercy. You make me grateful that my parish only gave the day a mention in the announcements.

      You know, Aaron also made a golden calf to avoid making some people upset….

  • I realized I forgot to check Vox Nova for the annual constipated, pastorally tone-deaf Memorial Day post. But I see, like a pro-lifer reflexively endorsing the latest GOP clown, you did not disappoint.

    I was disappointed, myself, when my small town changed their parade route. They used to go past my house and I spent all winter gathering rocks the perfect size for hurling. No matter. I still showed up and made sure to scowl. Later I found time to turn the hose on my neighbor’s patio party. He is a lector at the parish and had the audacity to come to Mass with his kids dressed in red white and blue! More like red WET and blue after I got done with them. “We are strangers and sojourners,” I reminded his wife as I sprayed her hot dogs and hamburgers off the grill.

    Speaking of Mass, I even stopped to complain to the pastor about how the prayers of the faithful incorporated the war dead and their families. And I also complained that the recessional music was “I Vow To Thee My Country.” I’ve heard that pastors love when people complain about the music, but mine has never thanked me once. The bishop never replied to my letter (four pages, single spaced) on the erroneous Americanist, exceptionalist theology promoted by such songs.

    I can’t accept any praise

    • Julia Smucker

      And just when I thought the patriotism police weren’t going to show for the annual burning of the Straw Prophet.

      OK, let’s cheerfully baptize all our cultural sacred cows, drape them in the flag and call it good. Just as long as we avoid any negativity.

      • I’m not the patriotism police, but I’ll take any opportunity to call out sourness masquerading as authentic Catholicity.

        Your theology is accurate (the supreme sacrifice is the Eucharist) yet your application of it is reflective of a pinched, miserable perspective that would surely give you and everyone else a migraine if carried out too far. Do you breathe a sigh of relief when the sacrifice and service of mothers is limited to the announcements on Mother’s Day? Do you feel a platitudinous, threadbare argument about witchcraft and secular appropriation and idolotry coming on every October 31? At birthdays do you proceed the singing with a capsule lecture on why we shouldn’t get carried away with praising the birthday boy?

        There are Christians who have that experience, but they are Protestants. Or Jehovah’s Witnesses.

        It is far more in our tradition to take popular holidays and baptize them as far as possible for the people of God; Memorial Day should be a time of prayer for the dead for example.

        I remember one blogger here took the opportunity of the day to suggest we get rid of Catholic military chaplains. You know, a ministry that has existed in the church for more than 1,000 years?

        I read this blog because it shares a radical vision of Catholicism that hews close to the gospel. But the patriotic holiday finger waving shows where the experience of the authors has become too academic and doesn’t have the smell of the sheep.

        • Julia Smucker

          Let me try to sort out some of the confusion here, and I hope we may be able to understand each other.

          I am not against Christians celebrating secular holidays as such, and I actually agree that baptizing them is a rather Catholic tendency (the “Christ of culture” of H. Richard Niebuhr’s schema, which I discuss a bit in my latest post). It’s the “as far as possible” that’s really the question, and that’s where I think we need to be more discerning. A Mother’s Day or Father’s Day blessing, for example, is innocent enough. I’ve never seen a liturgical appropriation of Halloween in its secular meaning (the Church is usually busy celebrating the vigil of All Saints Day, which is where the word came from in the first place), but I hope we’d agree that that would be more than a little disturbing.

          The real dangers, though, are typically more subtle. On patriotic holidays in particular, Christians should be paying attention to the narratives in our ears, particularly in a major world power where the line between simple love for one’s homeland and hubristic exceptionalism can be easily blurred. And that’s to say nothing of bringing them into the liturgy, which risks losing sight of the universality of the Church’s feasts (and by extension the Church herself) at best, and setting an idol in place of our Lord at worst. What else are we doing by describing anything else as the ultimate sacrifice made for our freedom, other (and radically other at that) than the one that was made two millennia ago and is made present to us at every Eucharist?

          The Church, furthermore, already has a day to pray for all the dead, without attributing to them any salvific role that belongs to Christ alone: it’s called All Souls Day.

          Finally, I believe you are misquoting Pope Francis if you’re implying that “having the smell of the sheep” means indiscriminately embracing every aspect of popular culture. While Francis is much known and liked for his sanguine disposition, he also finds plenty to critique in what he likes to call “throwaway culture” – one of his most frequent and characteristic terms. This could easily be applied to the disproportionate number of underprivileged Americans who are thrown away on the nation’s interminable wars, however much they are glorified posthumously.