You are how you use your Goods
In order to understand the concept of Christian sacrifice, it is necessary first to understand how Christians understand what it means to be a person or personhood. Now Christ says in the Gospels (Matt 6:21, Luke 12:34) that,
For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also
The idea is basically that you put your money where your heart is. We spend our resources, be it time or money, on what matters to us, on things that are important to us. Thus, how we use our resources, the ends to which we employ them reflects where our hearts and our values are. In fact, Christ’s claim is much stronger than to say that the way we use our possessions merely reflects our hearts, he is in fact saying that our hearts are at where our possessions are.
In this light, it is easy to understand the logic of animal sacrifices. In the ancient world, especially to primitive cultures, animals and agricultural products are their ‘treasures’, theses possessions are the measure of the person. To apply the logic of of Christ, where their animals are, there is their heart also.
Sacrifice; or Beam me up Scotty!
If in the Old Testament period, a person’s agricultural goods was a part of their personhood, then the logic of sacrifice becomes clearer.
In most OT sacrificial ritual, the killing and slaughter was not part of the ritual but merely a prepratory rite, performed by the offerer, not the priest. The real ritual action was the holocaust or the burning of the already dead animal (or animal parts) by the priests. The hebrew word for “holocaust” or olah means something like “that which goes up”. To understand this a bit better, you need to have an image of a burning animal on fire with the smoke “going upwards” to the heavens.
Thus, to put everything together, the idea is that the animals, symbolising who we are, are offered up by the priest to be sacrificed, which is simply a symbolic act of offering up our hearts and persons unto the Lord. If the animals are “where our hearts is”, then the act of offering up the animals to be burnt and lifted upwards in the smoke towards the heavens is an act of withdrawal ourselves and our hearts from ordinary use unto the Lord, it is in effect, an act of consecration and separating ourselves unto the Lord. It is an act of a union and harmony with God and obedience to God’s will, a powerful symbolic act of giving oneself up unto the Lord. In this light do we understand the idea of how cleansing or expiation from sins works. A person tainted by sins or uncleaness offers up pure and undefiled animals or sacrifices to symbolise his personhood and to separate himself from his past person who has sinned up unto the Lord in the sacrificial holocaust as performed by the priests, thus being consecrated and cleansed of sins once more as his person, as represented by the animal, is offered up in obedience to the Lord by the priest.
As evidence for this explanation of sacrifice, we can note that first in Numbers 16:41-48, as God’s wrath broke out amongst the people, Aaron made atonement or cleansed the people by offering up incense, proving that neither killing nor the death of any animal is required, only that the people be cleansed. Secondly, we also note that when a person was too poor to afford animal sacrifices, the sacrificial laws does make provisions that they can instead offer up cakes or flour offerings, etc, again highlighting that the essence of the sacrifice did not consists of killing or slaughter but of utter dedication or separation up unto the Lord. To summarise, an explanation of the Old Testament sacrificial rituals put it this way,
The links made in Leviticus 5 between the offering brought and what one could afford to bring are important. The close connection between substance (“wealth”) and person suggests that the more wealth one has (in a comprehensive sense), the more “self” there is to give (2 Sam 24:24, “I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing”). Thus, in the offering the worshipers submit themselves to God. The sacrifice is thus a tangible sign of faith, a concrete way in which one offers the self to God; no theory of how the worshiper is related to the animal is involved.
But later much prophetic critiques on sacrifices would be focused on the Israelites abuse of the system whereby they simply mechanically gave animals sacrifices without the consequent giving of their hearts and obedience, not realising that the animals and their blood is simply a representation of their life, not its substitute. King David would later point to the true meaning of animal sacrifices to say in Psalm 51 that it is the sacrifice of a contrite heart which God is well-pleased and also there would be much mentioned on the sacrifice of righteousness, etc.
Offered up and Made Holy to the Father, by, with and through Jesus Christ our Lord
In the case of the OT, the act of submission and separation unto the Lord is done through their possessions. But in the New Testament and with appearing of Christ, it is the other way round. It is we who are possessed by Christ’s love and person. And Christ uniting us into his Body, offers up his whole and perfect life in the ultimate act of Sacrifice unto the Father, that we might be cleansed from our sins. Christ’s sacrifice does not consist in only His death, it includes his life of submission to God’s will as well, it is a sacrifice of his entire life of obedience to God, and thus it has the function of the blood and animal sacrifices representing our lifes, and those of us who believe in Christ are united with him, and with Him as our head and as our representative. Before, we are represented by our imperfect possessions, now, we are represented by Him who possesses us, Jesus Christ our Lord, before the Father, with whom He is well-pleased.
Some things to consider personally
If it is only in union with Christ through His Body by which we are made holy, then the only way which we can become holy and righteous has to be through Christ and in ever greater union with Christ through faith in Christ and the submission of all our being, our time, our work and our possession to the Will of God in Jesus Christ. Thus, we need to ponder and examine our lifes in the light of Christ’s commands, teachings and example, and to reflect and conform our hearts, mind and body in accordance to it. To end with the words of the Anglican liturgy,
O LORD and heavenly Father, we thy humble servants entirely desire thy fatherly goodness mercifully to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; most humbly beseeching thee to grant, that by the merits and death of thy Son Jesus Christ, and through faith in his blood, we and all thy whole Church may obtain remission of our sins, and all other benefits of his passion. And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee, that all we, who are partakers of this holy Communion, may be fulfilled with thy grace and heavenly benediction. And although we be unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice, yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service; not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences, through Jesus Christ our Lord; by whom, and with whom, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, all honour and glory be unto thee, O Father Almighty, world without end. Amen.
One thought on “On the Meaning of Sacrifice”
[…] sacrificial language which seems to be intrinsically an “upward traffic” language (I once sketched a conception of sacrifice as simply referring to the “sacrifice of obedience”, not […]