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Sacrifice and the First Commandment

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.


Our present meditation is on sacrifice. This is our final reflection on the First Commandant of the Decalogue. This is also the highest form of obedience to the first precept of God. It is also the most perfect form of worship of the one true God. Given the magnitude of the subject we shall dispense with a long introduction and get right into our subject.

Our reflections will cover the following areas, each in the form of a question and this time there are five. First, what is sacrifice? Second, what were the Jewish sacrifices of the Old Law? Third, what is the principle sacrifice of the New Law? Fourth, what are the principle motives for our sacrifices? And finally, are sacrifices the most powerful practice of our Catholic faith and the acme of Christian spirituality?

What is Sacrifice?

In the broadest possible terms sacrifice is the voluntary surrender of something precious which we deeply value to give honor to God as our supreme Lord. Let me repeat. In the broadest possible terms sacrifice is the voluntary surrender of something precious which we deeply value to give honor to God as our supreme Lord.

Every part of this definition is important. Sacrifice is the voluntary surrender of something precious which we deeply value. It must be voluntary. And a sacrifice is only as sacrificial as it is voluntary. The heart of sacrifice is the will. Therefore, sacrifice by implication is free, it is not coerced. Therefore, a sacrifice is willingly, freely, voluntarily done. Three words; freely, willingly, voluntarily done.

Emotions may cooperate. The emotions may resist. Well, the will says to the feelings, sorry my dears, I want to make the sacrifice. You keep complaining. I repeat the heart of sacrifice is in the will. By implication therefore, sacrifice comes from within. Of course sacrifice says, and can be and should be externalized, but the heart of sacrifice is the heart which in biblical language is the will.

We go on. Sacrifice is voluntary surrender, which means that I give up; I let go; I do not continue holding on to, and as by now we know we can let go of things externally. All right, all right I’ll give it up. With my hand, that’s not enough. I must give up in my will and I must keep giving up, keep giving up.

We continue. Sacrifice is the surrender of something precious to me. What may be precious to me may be indifferent to somebody else. Something that I treasure, something that I naturally want to hold on to, and I repeat, the emotions, the feelings, the natural urges may all be there. But I surrender something that unless I’m willing to make the sacrifice I won’t let go. And the word sacrifice is surrendering what I personally value. And the more I value that which I surrender, oh how pleasing to God is my sacrifice. That which is precious, which is precious may be something outside of me, like money or property, or a person I like, or land, or rights of ownership, or it may be that that which I surrender is deep within me, like my personal preferences, my personal likes or my way of thinking, or write or speak, my free will. I don’t lose my free will but I can sacrifice or surrender the use, that’s a crucial distinction, the use of my free will. Provided, always that which I surrender is pleasing to God. To conclude sacrifice is at root, a surrender made to God for His honor and glory.

Now something about Jewish sacrifices. There’s more than passing value in seeing something in the nature of the Old Testament sacrifices of the Jewish people. These sacrifices began with Abraham. In fact, that is the way Abraham became Abraham.

Unlike his pagan contemporaries Abram sacrificed to the one true God. That’s why he became the father of all believers. But get it, believers in the one true God whose belief is manifest by sacrifice to that one true God.

Everybody, every sane person makes sacrifices. The only question is to whom, for whom are those sacrifices made? If I care for someone, if I love someone, I will give up, as married people find out in the first three days after their wedding. Abraham became the father of all believers because he believed with the mind in the one true God and sacrificed to that one true God, unlike the idolaters all around him.

This then, the sacrifice of the Jews begun by Abraham was radically different from the pagan sacrifices. The Jews offered sacrifice to Yahweh, the one true God and not as the pagans to a bevy of deities, the sun, moon and stars, animals, the trees, the rivers and seas, and remember and this is Abraham way back at the beginning, God asked him to make the sacrifice of the most precious possession he had, of his own son, and he was willing, get the word, willing, willing, that’s sacrifice. He was willing to make the surrender. Another scriptures tell us he already had whatever sharp instrument in his hand ready, ready, to sacrifice his son. Remember the son’s question of Abraham, father we have everything ready for the sacrifice but where’s the sacrifice? And Abraham’s answer has changed the history of the world. My son, God will provide. In anticipation of God providing His only divine Son become man.

Among the Jews then, sacrifice meant always the object was always the one true God. But there were as we know among the Jews that’s when the Decalogue was first given to the human race, to the Jewish people. There were bloody sacrifices of animals, unlike the bloody sacrifices of human beings by all the pagans of history. Do you hear me? If you want to know how pagan is our country, call me up. I’ll give you a mini course in comparative religion.

There has never been a pagan religion in human history that did not offer bloody sacrifices of human beings to the Gods, including to the evil deities in propitiation. Abortion is paganism as proved by all of human history. Inspired as we are sure among the pagans by the evil deities who we know are the demons.

Back to the Jews. The Jews never, never, offered the bloody sacrifices of human beings and among the pagans, especially of children.

In a series of lectures that I gave on Columbus in one of the lectures I concentrated on well, those dear, mild, kind, loving native Indians whom as you say our modern media had canonized and told us what an awful thing Columbus did. He deprived those dear, sweet, loving Aztecs of their own native religion. Oh, native religion all right. This is history, on their feast days the Aztecs would sacrifice up to ten thousand human beings especially little children. Oh, how little we know of world history for those of us whose native language is English.

Back to the Jews. The bloody sacrifices of animals and unbloody sacrifices of grain, food, and wine, but then after their deliverance from Egypt the highest sacrifice of the Jews was of the paschal lamb sacrificed at the Passover. It was this sacrifice at which as our faith tells us Christ instituted the sacrifice of the New Law. Change the accent, the sacrifice of the New Law. For centuries we are still among the Jews, the temple of Jerusalem was the principle place where the chosen people of the Old Law offered their sacrifices. After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. the temple was never restored. To this day the post-Christian Jews have synagogues but they no longer have the temple of sacrifice.

So much for the First Commandment of the Decalogue, on its highest level of sacrifice among the chosen people before Christ.

The principle sacrifice of the New Testament. This is our faith. The principle sacrifice of the New Testament was the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. That sacrifice began in Christ’s human will at the Last Supper. This is my Body which will be given up for you. Get it, which will be given up, the oblation, the destruction of the victim would take place the next day but the sacrifice, the voluntary surrender began on Holy Thursday night. This is my Blood which will be shed for you. That first sacrifice began on Holy Thursday night and ended mid-afternoon of the first Good Friday. And this as we were saying when we began this retreat, this is Christ observing the First Commandment of the Decalogue, and what an observance that was.

One thing I want to make as clear as my mind and language will enable me to see; the Decalogue as given indeed in the Old Testament. But the Decalogue is God in the New Testament, not only proclaiming the Decalogue elevated, but living or shall we say dying the Decalogue by sacrificing His own life on the cross. In Christ’s sacrifice He offered His own Body and Blood by death for the salvation of the human race. God is the immortal one. God cannot die. So what did God do, God became man in order that He might be able to die. But at the Last Supper Christ instituted and etch this in bronze, at the Last Supper Christ instituted the Catholic priesthood, that’s the heart, the essence, the core of the priesthood, to offer sacrifice.

I spent twenty-five years in teaching my own Jesuit priests, my brethren you are either priests already or to be ordained priests to offer sacrifice and you are only as priestly priests as your lives are lives of self-surrender. Christ then at the Last Supper instituted the Catholic priesthood precisely for the purpose of perpetuating the sacrifice of Calvary.

In my conversation a week ago, with the auxiliary bishop of Washington, my good friend, a Jesuit and a bishop and severely orthodox. Oh what joy. He told me, John this is the crisis in the Catholic Church, it is the priesthood. Where by now those who are ordained priests so many tragically either losing their faith in their own priesthood or never really having it in the first place.

The keynote speaker of the National Convention of Vocation Directors speaking in the West Coast addressed a huge assembly from all over the country, he began by saying, my dear friends, I want to tell you I am not a priest. I’m a presbyter. He spent the rest of his speech speaking to Vocation Directors denying his own priesthood.

How the Church needs communities like the Handmaids of the Precious Blood to preserve and where need be restore faith in their own priesthood by those whose priesthood goes back, back to the Last Supper. It is this sacrifice of Calvary reenacted in the Sacrifice of the Mass which is the peak and consummation of all the sacrifices of all times since the foundation of the world.

Our part in this Eucharistic sacrifice is crucial. Christ continues to sacrifice Himself in the Mass. He has a human nature, a human will. He does surrender Himself to the Father in every Mass signified by the double Consecration. Separately, the Body and then the Blood to signify the separation on Calvary, Christ died by bleeding to death.

But, and this is where we come in, but Christ wants, better, He requires, better still, He demands that we join our sacrifices with His in and through the Mass. That’s what Catholic Christianity is all about. Thus on Calvary Christ was the only priest and the only victim but in the Mass it is also we who are both actively sacrificing and passively are the ones who are sacrificed. It’s easy enough. Easy to make victims of other people. The hard part of sacrifice is when the victim is, pardon the grammar, me.

We go on. What are the principle motives for offering sacrifice? And by the way the best verb to associate with sacrifice is offer, offer sacrifice. What are the principle motives? The motives or grounds for offering sacrifice to God correspond to the five ways in which we can pray to God because that’s what sacrifice is; it is the highest form of prayer. Our sacrifices therefore are really so many ways of praying. Indeed our prayers are only as pleasing to God as they are sacrificial. Let me repeat. Our prayers are only as pleasing to God as they are sacrificial. It is the logic I’ve been using over the years; the highest form of the use of our free will is to pray. That’s the main reason we have a will, to pray. The highest form of prayer is sacrifice. That is why again over the years in teaching the theology of either the Mass or here of sacrifice two words go together. Prayer and pain. Either we suffer and unite our sufferings with those of Christ or, we may be praying but not as Christians and certainly not as Catholics.

Back to our principle motives. Motive means why, why, why can, why do we offer sacrifices to God? And here we go through the same series that we’ve seen now several times already. Why do we offer sacrifice to God? First, as our humble adoration of His divine majesty. In acknowledgment of His Lordship over heaven and earth and with emphasis, His mastery over our own human will. Why do we offer sacrifice? Second, as our loving adoration of God of adoring love of the one who faith tells us is the all-loving deity except for whose love nothing and the word is nothing else would exist.

Our second motive for offering sacrifice is because we believe that we can sacrifice ourselves out of love for God who became man out of love for us. In other words the sacrifice of adorable love for us Christians means sacrifice in union with God Himself who became man to show us what this kind of sacrifice means.

Thirdly, why do we offer sacrifice? As our gratitude to God for His countless benefits to us and to the whole human race. That is why the Eucharist is called Eucharist--thanksgiving. In other words God wants us to show how much we appreciate all that He has done and will into the eternal future do for us.

So having blessed us with so many things we like, so many things we value, so many things we consider precious. Do you really, Christ asks us? Do you really appreciate what I’ve given you? Yes. Well, would you mind, I have to say this, would you mind giving up some of this? What do you mean Lord? Just what I said. Give up some of this. This would be your way of showing me that you are really grateful. The essence of gratitude is shown in sacrifice.

We go on. Why do we offer sacrifice to God? As our petition for His blessings that He might answer our prayers because we unite our prayers with the surrender of what we cherish. Again, this is the Divine logic. It takes faith to see it. And a deep faith to see it deeply and this in one declarative sentence is the heart of sanctity.

Sanctity is a life of sacrifice offering to God what we like because we love Him and acknowledge Him as our God. So then sacrifice as petition means the surrender of what we cherish to obtain what we’re asking for. What does sacrifice add to just the verbal pleading or asking for something? It manifests our sincerity. It shows our willingness to give up what we want in order to obtain what we need. Let me repeat. By joining sacrifice with prayer of petition or better of making our sacrifice prayers of petition we surrender what we want in order to obtain from God what we need. To show God how ready we are to give up our most precious possessions in order to dare we say, move the Divine bounty.

I couldn’t think of a better thing to do during a retreat than to list all the things you like, all the things you would want to have. Of course, always within the limits of the Divine Law. And don’t stop listing the things you like, because then, the obvious conclusion, because then oh no, once again, oh yes! That’s what the sacrifice of petition is all about. Giving up what we like to obtain from God what we need.

Finally, the motive for making sacrifice is our plea for God’s mercy. We have sinned. In doing so we indulged our self-will. That’s all sin is. That’s all it need be. Indulgence of my will, contrary to the will of God. So our sacrifice must be the surrender of our wills by giving up what we like in reparation for indulging our wills in sin.

Honest, I was twenty two when I entered the Society of Jesus. Oh how much I’ve learned since then, I can’t believe it but honestly, I believed unless I sacrificed and I liked, oh how many things I liked I wouldn’t save my soul. I have sinned enough by the age of twenty two to make me realize Hardon, if you want to keep out of hell you’ve got to give up what you like. Including, I think I should say this, the person who was convinced that God wanted her to marry a man by the name of John Hardon.

When we’ve sinned we’ve enjoyed creatures to which we had no right so what do we do in this the final and in many ways the crowning form of sacrifice? What do we do having enjoyed creatures to which we had no right; we surrender creatures to which we have a right, get it? You don’t give up temptations, that’s not sacrifice. Don’t be silly. You give up things that are not only legitimate but pleasing to God. But you like them. In order to do what? To make reparation for having enjoyed creatures that we had no right to so now we surrender creatures to which we have a right.

We have more. Sacrifice as the most perfect practice of our Catholic faith. All we’ve said so far leads to one conclusion; our Catholic faith finds its noblest expression in sacrifice. The reasons are many but especially two. As believers in Christ and His followers we know unlike the human race before the coming of Christ we are not now sacrificing alone, it is God become man uniting His sacrifice of Calvary with our sacrifices.

That’s the first reason why sacrifice is the crowning and the highest form of the practice of Christianity. Because our sacrifices are divinized by God Himself uniting His sacrifice and constantly through the Mass with our own sacrifices, and secondly when we sacrifice we are performing the noblest activity of which a rational creature is capable.

Why? Why is sacrifice the noblest activity of a rational creature? Because we are offering in the last analysis our wills, which is the highest faculty of our souls. Even our minds are a means to provide the will with what the will should sacrifice and why.

Why is sacrifice the highest activity of which we are capable? Because we are giving up what is pleasing to us in order to please God and what a mystery. What a mystery that God should have enabled us to be able to surrender what we like in order to show Him how much we love Him. Some souls are called to very high sanctity others to sanctity indeed, but not so high. But every person, every person called to sanctity is called to live a life of sacrifice.

Two words belong together as condition and consequence and they are sacrifice and sanctity. Naturally, spontaneously because we are all so pathetically human we don’t like to let go, we don’t want to give up. You might say who does -- what we like. But of those, and I hope I’m talking to the right audience those of whom God is asking the greatest sacrifice trust Him, He is planning the highest form of sanctity.

Lord Jesus, you’re our God who offered yourself on the cross out of love for us. We beg you dear Savior to make with your grace our lives, lives of self-surrender and sacrifice so that surrendering ourselves to you here on earth you might give us yourself in that eternity for which we were made. Amen.

Tape 3A:52, 12/24/92

Copyright © 1999 Inter Mirifica

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