Leading to the Great Sacrifice

Editor’s note: This continues a series of columns by Father Martin L. Buote on Catholic worship.

The Letter to the Hebrews clearly identifies two covenants, and quotes the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah on the subject: “For if that first covenant had been faultless, no places would have been sought for a second one. But he finds fault with them and says: ‘Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will conclude a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers the day I took them by the hand to lead them forth from the land of Egypt; for they did not stand by My covenant’” (Heb 8:7-9).

This leads us to the topic of sacrifice for, “not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood. When every Commandment had been proclaimed by Moses to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and goats, together with water and crimson wool and hyssop, and sprinkled the book itself and all the people saying, ‘This is the blood of the covenant which God has enjoined upon you’” (Heb 9:18-20). And at the Last Supper, Jesus said, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which will be shed for you” (Lk 22:20).

The concept of sacrifice is much more narrow in Scripture than the way the word is used in other contexts. Sacrifice is applied to many different situations, modern and ancient. Here are just a few examples: parents sacrifice for their children, governments sacrifice the lives of combatants and civilians in wars, the servants and wives of early pharaohs were sacrificed to continue to serve him in the afterlife, children were sacrificed to be messengers to some god or goddess (I have held some of their bones at Harvard’s Semitic Museum), foods were sacrificed in many ancient pagan temples to feed the gods (rejected for Israel in Psalm 50). This list of ways in which the word “sacrifice” has been used could go on and on. As covenant was restricted to one meaning in the Bible, so also shall we restrict sacrifice to a single meaning in Scripture for our understanding of Biblical worship. That understanding is to be found in the concept of gift.

Among humans, a gift can express love or appreciation, or regrets, or petition (bribe?), or any number of other non-verbal communications. When it comes to God, however, there are two problems. In the first place, since God created and has dominion over all things, how can we truly make Him a gift? Secondly, supposing we do find something appropriate, how would we give it to Him? (The postal service between here and Heaven is not good!) Those two questions are interrelated, and one answer resolves both dilemmas, namely, remove the gift from human use, and then it is God’s alone. A sacrifice differs from a donation. If I make a donation, it is removed from my human use, but it still has value for the use of another. In sacrifice, at least some aspect of the gift is removed from all human use!

If a gift is to be given to God, naturally we would want to give something of great value, in and of itself. The Hope Diamond is a pretty stone (I’ve seen it) to which we attach great monetary value. The life of a human being is beyond monetary value. The greatest gifts to God are human life, certain aspects of human life (vowed chastity, vowed obedience, etc.), or that which supports human life (animals used for draft, clothing, food, etc., or other food items). Thus, human sacrifice is the greatest gift, but Scripture forbids it, even from the early pages of the Bible (Gen 9:5,6). This prohibition occurs just after Noah sacrificed animals. There was to be one notable exception to this prohibition, and it is stated in Jn 10:17,18!

Some sacrifices mentioned in the Old Testament were specifically recalled in the New. These include the sacrifice of Melchizedek, the sacrifice (or binding) of Isaac, and the Paschal sacrifice under Moses.

In telling the story of Melchizedek (Gen 14:18–20), the word sacrifice is not used, but he is said to be “a priest of God Most High,” and the timing of his bringing “out bread and wine” was appropriate for a sacrifice of thanksgiving. He was also named “king of Salem,” that is, of Jerusalem.

The binding of Isaac is also full of symbolism. Isaac was Abraham’s “beloved son” (Gen 22:12), he carried the wood intended to be his funeral pyre (Gen 22:6), he and his father Abraham traveled to a height in the land of Moriah (Gen 22:2). At least by the middle of the second century B.C., the land of Moriah was understood to be the land around Jerusalem. Though Abraham was prepared and ready to offer his son in sacrifice, at the last moment, “God Himself will provide the sheep for the holocaust” (Gen 22:8).

The story of the Passover sacrifice is told in Exodus, chapter 12. The animal for the sacrifice was to be a young sheep or goat, a lamb (Ex 12:3-5). The blood of the sacrifice would mark the homes of those whose lives were to be spared (Ex 12:13). This ritual of sacrifice was to be repeated “throughout your generations as a perpetual institution” (Ex 12:17).

These three incidents from God’s plan, as revealed in the Old Testament, make it impossible for us to see the crucifixion of Jesus, not so much as a criminal execution, but as an act of sacrifice by our Great High Priest.

Father Buote is a retired priest of the Fall River Diocese and a frequent contributor to The Anchor.

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