April 15, 2022 – 7:00 PM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Isaiah 52:13-53:12 Psalm 31:2;6;12-13;15-16;17;25
Hebrews 4:14-16;5:7-9 John 18:1-19:42
+ In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Every time we celebrate Mass, we mention the death of Jesus in the Eucharistic Prayer, otherwise known as “The Canon of the Mass”, the “Consecration Prayer” the “Great Thanksgiving” or if you want to use a really esoteric term, you would call it the “Anaphora.”
Most, if not all, Eucharistic prayers, refer to the death of Jesus on the cross as a “sacrifice.” Indeed, at Mass, before we begin the Preface Dialogue, also called the “Sursum Corda” which is Latin for “Lift Up Your Hearts,” we pray that our sacrifice of the Mass be acceptable to God in a prayer known as the Orate, Fratres, Latin for “pray brothers.”
Traditional Catholic teaching is that the Mass itself is a sacrifice offered to the Glory of God. Our Anglican sisters and brothers emphasize this point by referring to it as, “a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.” Protestants, however, commonly, but inaccurately, refer to the Mass as a re-offering of Jesus as a sacrificial victim. Protestants claim that the Eucharist, which they call “The Lord’s Supper,” is a mere symbolic memorial meal commemorating the saving work of the passion of Jesus. It is, however, far more than that.
So what does it mean to say the death of Jesus on the cross was, in fact, a sacrifice. More fundamentally, what does the word “sacrifice” mean?
As with the words “sin”, “repentance” and “reconciliation,” all of which Deacon Sharon and myself discussed in previous homilies this Lent, there is a noticeable chasm between how the person on the street uses these words and how the religious community uses them. The same is true for the word, “sacrifice.” To make things even more complicated, the meaning of these keywords varies from denomination to denomination and from theologian to theologian. Despite the existence of catechisms and the reign of magisterial authority, Christian theological unanimity is the most elusive of dreams, perhaps because, first, God made each of us uniquely, second, we are all the sum of different sets of experiences, and perhaps most importantly, God is, in and of himself, or herself, a mystery beyond human understanding. Humanity will never totally understand God.
If you look up the word “sacrifice” in a common secular dictionary, like m dash w dot com, you will find several definitions. One is the offering of something precious to a deity. Indeed, the Jews offered animal and agricultural sacrifices to God at their portable altar tabernacle and eventually in the First and Second Temples. The idea was to make God happy so God would do good things for them, or at least, forbear from doing bad things to them.
If we dig a little deeper into the dictionary, we find that the word sacrifice means “a destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else.” This is what we hear from many Protestant preachers to describe the crucifixion of Jesus. You’ve probably heard them say, “Jesus died for our sins.” Their theory, known as “penal substitution” means that God was mad at humanity for human sin, and in their minds, sin must be punished. The conservative Protestants think that to meet God’s demand for justice, someone would have to pay a penalty, and that was what Jesus did by undergoing crucifixion.
Another common meaning of the word, “sacrifice” is, “to suffer loss of, give up, renounce, injure, or destroy especially for an ideal, belief, or goal.” In everyday life, we see this concept of sacrifice in parents sacrificing their wants and needs for those of their children or soldiers sacrificing their lives for the country they serve. That is all OK, as long as it’s voluntary and not compelled. Parenthood should be a choice as should be a career as a professional soldier.
In this sense, the sacrifice of Jesus was as voluntary as voluntary gets. Rather than use his divine powers to call down legions of angels to save him, Jesus went to the cross and died. He told his disciples about his impending death throughout his ministry in what’s called the “passion predictions” that appear throughout the synoptic Gospels, that is Mark, Matthew, and Luke.
Jesus knew what would happen to him. We will recall from the Gospels that Jesus was a most unpopular individual with the religious and governmental establishments, and rather than change his message or go into hiding, he would rather die. Indeed, this way of thinking and feeling inspired many, many Christian martyrs, way too many to name, over many centuries, who refused to renounce their loyalty to Jesus at the cost of their own lives.
The very earliest followers of Jesus, his disciples, who later became his Apostles, were, of course, Jewish, and hence, more likely than not, had a Jewish understanding of the concept of sacrifice that came out of the Torah, that is, the first five books of the Old Testament. Among them was the Book of Leviticus. That book prescribed what was known as “sin offerings.” Leviticus gives some very specific directions for the burnt offerings of certain animals and certain grains for different kinds of sin.
One might think that these offerings were to appease God’s anger at human sin, but that is a very inaccurate understanding. A better analysis sees these offerings as healing and sanctification.
The major problem with any idea that we have an angry God who must be appeased is the basic loving and merciful nature of God, who does not demand blood from us to love us. Therefore, sacrifice does not make an angry God loving through appeasement or payment. God loves all of us unconditionally!
When we repent after we sin, that is, when we change the direction of our lives, we don’t do so as a condition of God’s love. Rather, we change our lives in response to God’s boundless love for us. The temple sacrifices were not about appeasement because God is the initiator in our relationship to God. God does not respond to what humanity does. Humanity responds to what God does.
If we dig deeper into the Old Testament, we find that the object of the Temple sacrifice was not a mechanical transaction detached from a relationship. Rather, it was an outward ritual whose object was inward change, devotion to God, and a change of the direction of one’s life. For example, Psalm fifty-one attributed to King David when he realized he had sinned with Bathsheba, reads,
“Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean.
Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow . . .
Create in me a pure heart, O God.”
King David tells us that God is not interested in what we do, but in the state of our hearts. Again quoting Psalm 51,
“You do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.
The offering God desires from us is for compassion and justice to dominate our lives. God doesn’t care about ritualistic actions or legal requirements. Rather, God wants a process of sanctification that penetrates the core of our being and flows outwardly into the way we live.
Sacrifice is about sanctification. Look at the etymology of the English word, “sacrifice.” It comes from two Latin root words, “sacer,” an adjective meaning “sacred” and “facere,” the verb, “to make.” To make something sacred is to sanctify it, to make it holy. What God wants is for us to be sanctified. God wants us to be made holy.
Jesus, through his death, makes us a holy people. In his Blood we are washed and sanctified, made a holy nation. God’s intent was to make us holy through forgiveness and reconciliation. Sin is not a crime of which humanity can be acquitted. Sin is a sickness that requires our being made well again. God does not need a sacrifice to forgive us or love us. Rather, we need the sacrifice God provides to be made clean inside. There is nothing in Hebrews that indicates that the sacrifices serve to appease wrath through punishment. Throughout Hebrews, sacrifices are described in terms of sanctification and the removal of sin.
In the Epistle to the Hebrews, we read that the intent of Christ’s sacrifice was to purify us, to take away our sins, and make us holy. Our conservative sisters and brothers often rely on Hebrews to preach that Jesus was punished instead of humanity in order to satisfy God’s demand for justice. They are dead wrong.
The author of Hebrews, who is unknown, concludes the sacrificial rituals of the Temple have been abandoned in place of Jesus doing God’s will. That author said, “And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” In other words, it is not the death of Jesus in itself, but rather the faithfulness of the love of Jesus for humankind that makes us holy.
Love led Jesus to the cross. The Old Covenant understood sacrifice as a legal requirement, but the New Covenant proclaimed by Jesus is Jesus doing God’s will by acting in love.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples that there is no greater love conceivable than for someone to give their life for their friends. We are friends of Jesus. Jesus is our model for friendship. Jesus loved without limits. Jesus makes possible our living a life of friendship.
Everything Jesus shared with us, in particular, the personification of the unconditional love God, has for all of humanity, has transformed the world. Through our friendship with Jesus, we will come to know God. Through friendship with Jesus, we enact the love of God.
In willingly dying on the cross, Jesus placed all of humanity ahead of himself. Propagating his radical message of unconditional love to replace retribution in how people deal with one another was his number one priority, more important to Jesus than his own life.
Jesus gave up his life because he loved humanity. His message of unconditional love, manifested in forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation, is the very thing God offers us when we accept God’s love for us. God’s love for us, our love for God, and mutual love between persons is what truly saves humanity, not God requiring the death of his own son.
Jesus exemplified self-giving love throughout his entire ministry. The message of Jesus liberates humanity from the bondage of sin, death, and the devil. Jesus was not sent as the sinless victim to be presented as a perfect sacrificial offering to God but came to us as an exemplar to model the values of God’s Kingdom. Jesus did not suffer to appease God but to liberate humanity from the false authority that seemingly implores us to exact revenge from those who wrong us. Jesus died on the cross to liberate humanity so that the relationship between humanity and God might be restored and renewed after the sin of Adam and subsequent events in human history.
The cross was a necessary event in our exodus from the incarnation to the resurrection. Crucifixion horrifies us, as well it should, but the suffering of Jesus is his loud cry for justice, a justice that will make things right in our relationship to God and one another.
Today’s world is filled with suffering, injustice, broken lives, and abusive relationships. Over the last month, the nightly news from Ukraine has bombarded us with images of war, suffering, and terror impelling all decent people to cry out like the author of Psalm 6, “How long, Lord? How long?”
The events of the war in Ukraine cry out for justice and liberation that mirrors the central theme of the Old Testament prophets from whom the hope for A Messiah who would come to set things right, a Messiah who would restore justice, who would liberate all of humanity from bondage and oppression, and establish God’s reign.
Jesus did not come to effectuate a change in politics or improve our individual fate in the next world. The entirety of the life of Jesus, his incarnation, his earthly ministry of teaching and healing, his death, his resurrection, and His ascension, were a mission to bring God’s loving justice to rule the mind, body, and spirit of humanity for the whole world to be made well again. AMEN.