Sacrifice, Gift, Liturgy

Another way to look at the religious act of sacrifice is to see it in relation to gift-giving.

“Gift” in English typically has the connotation of freely-given, something not given in payment of some debt.  In light of my previous post on sacrifice, that would making gifting and sacrificing two different modes of giving.  Sacrifices are things given to God (or, more broadly, the gods) because we owe a debt of worship; gifts are given in a superabundant act of generosity or love.*

The asymmetry of the God-human relationship I discussed in the previous post extends to this gift-sacrifice distinction.  God can never owe anything and creates all that is in a superabundant act of love; He can only give gifts.  Humans can never truly own anything of their own to gift to God; humans can only give sacrifices.  God gives; we sacrifice.

This asymmetry establishes the basic pattern of human offerings to God.  Every sacrifice presupposes a gift.  Whatever we give in sacrifice has already been given to us as a divine gift.  Even our own existence comes to us in gift-form, so we never really stand before God as equal or even, in some sense, Other.  We are already His, and whatever we would give Him is already His.

This is not all bad news, however; it is one way to attempt to address the inadequacy of human worship.  What we are giving is already God’s, and by its connection to Him it takes on a sacrificial value that we could never contribute on our own.  In that sense, sacrifices are returning divine gifts back to sender, so that in some extended sense God is giving to God and part of the inadequacy of our sacrifices is “solved.”

This gift/sacrifice dynamic also shows up in the Catholic liturgy in an interesting way.  If you follow the rubrics of the Catholic mass closely you will see that there are in fact two distinct moments of sacrificial language.  Following my comments above about gift, we should expect to find two corresponding gifts that precede each sacrifice.

The first sacrifice is the offering of mere bread and wine, “fruit of the earth and work of human hands.”  In the modern liturgy of the Second Vatican Council, that offering is made with a clear variation on the Jewish berakhah (“Blessed are you Lord, God of all creation…”).  This sacrifice is based on God’s first and most basic gift to us: creation, the goods of the earth.

Now as we said in the previous post, no sacrifice can actually be equal to God in any way whatsoever, regardless of our intentions or even by the recognition that these things belong to God anyway.  Even by representing every gift God has given us in creating the universe, the bread and wine fall infinitely short of equaling God.

That’s when the second gift comes in.  The transubstantiation of the Eucharistic elements means that God receives our inadequate sacrifice, our “returned gift,” transforms it into Himself, and bestows Himself as the gift.  The second moment of sacrificial language proceeding from this gift is the offering of God to God, the only sacrifice that could ever truly pay our debt because it is the only thing equal to God.  The debt is paid; we perform the truest act of justice.

The liturgy does not end there, of course.  For there is a third gift in this divine-human exchange, and it is of course the most famous and familiar aspect of the Catholic liturgy.  God receives our perfect sacrifice of Himself and gifts it again, this time as food.  Within the ritual God actually gives Himself to us twice.

In the Catholic liturgy these phases of gift and sacrifice are not so neatly sequential.  It is clear from the very outset of the rubrics that this gift of bread and wine will become, over the course of the ritual, the body and blood of Christ to be consumed as food.  The moment of transubstantiation in the ritual, the second gift, actually corresponds with the moment when Christ offers Himself as food and drink to the Apostles during His Last Supper.

The three moments are all one in the original, historical Moment of the Last Supper.  Even there a kind of holy confusion reigns, since Christ has not yet finished offering Himself in sacrifice nor finished empowering His Apostles to truly “do this in memory of” Him.  There is no moment, whether in the life of Christ or in the liturgy, in which one could hit a button on a stop watch to mark the transition from one phase of gift and sacrifice to another.

Still, the moments are notionally distinct and important to emphasize for the following reasons:

The first thing to notice, I think, is that there is no clear third sacrifice following the third gift.  The sacrificial language of the ritual is finished once we participate in the heavenly banquet.  The logic of the ritual pushes us either to look for a third sacrifice or find some significance in its lack.  Suitably, given the Catholic penchant for mystery, I think both are operative here.

On the one hand, we become the sacrifice when we participate in the heavenly banquet.  Our lives are united to the perfect sacrifice both mystically and biologically.  The liturgical dismissal is in part a command to go forth and “finish” the sacrifice by living out a holy life in perfect obedience to the One we have made part of us.

On the other hand, it seems very important that God have the last word in this divine-human exchange.  God will not be outdone in gift-giving, nor does He gift simply so that we will repay.  What began as superabundant generosity and love ends that way, and there would be something unseemly in responding any further.  In the Eucharistic celebration we have simply become one and no further payment, ritually-speaking, makes sense.  According to the flesh we do in fact exit the sacred space and rejoin secular time, but liturgically-speaking we simply never leave that moment of eternity.

The second thing to notice is that the separability of sacrifice and meal makes possible degrees or stages of participation in the liturgy.  It is common in Catholic circles to speak of two stages of participation in the liturgy: the first half of the ritual, in which we hear the word of God, and the second half, in which we participate in the Eucharist.  This is right as far as it goes, but a little too simple.

The priest in the liturgy offers the perfect sacrifice in communion with and on behalf of all his people.  The faithful morally unite themselves to this sacrificial act in union with their priest.  There is infinite value in this offering of God to God quite apart from whether one proceeds on to the heavenly banquet in the final moment of the liturgy.

That should be some consolation for people physically incapable of coming to the liturgical celebration, whether because of infirmity or quarantine.  The moral and mystical union of priest and people is not undone by distance or geography.  The consecration of the Eucharistic elements is not merely a necessary song and dance to get to the important part of eating and drinking.  It is profoundly good that the liturgy goes on without us present and it is profoundly good for faithful to morally unite with that liturgy even from a distance.  It is especially important to recall this when complete participation in the ritual is impossible.

There is however something of a puzzle related to this last point about impossibility.  Church law going all the way back to St. Paul has regulated the conditions of sanctity under which one may participate in the final phase of the liturgy, the heavenly banquet.  Why this is and why it is a puzzle will have to wait for a third post in this series, when we bring things around to yet another sacrament.

*Etymologically gift just means “a thing that has been given.” I decided against diving into that point since I was only going to end up cutting back toward our more modern sense of “gift” in this post anyway.  But it is interesting to think of gift as a genus and notice just how few species of gifting have proper names like sacrifice does.


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