Q: Why do we talk about sacrifice in our prayers, especially during Lent? Didn’t Jesus do away with the sacrifices of the Old Testament?
A: Your question is a good one and something that is very important to reflect on throughout the Christian life and not just during the holy time of Lent. The offering of sacrifice is something Jesus fulfilled and perfected, not abolished. Rather, the eternal sacrifice of Jesus is opened to us so that we can be joined to him in becoming one perfect offering to the Father. That’s actually the greatest honor and purpose of the Christian life.
Let’s reflect a bit more on what we mean by sacrifice so that we can appreciate the profound spiritual invitation Jesus offers us.
Sacrifices in the ancient Jewish world of Jesus had a variety of purposes and usually involved the immolation of an animal. Sacrifices were used to seal covenants both between human persons and between humanity and God. Sacrifices were also used to atone for sins, to offer thanksgiving for blessings received, and to establish communion among participants when shared as a meal. (The practice of sacrifice in ancient Judaism should be carefully distinguished from sacrifices offered in the pagan world where such acts were intended to either appease or influence the gods in a particular way.)
The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross perfects all these purposes of Jewish sacrifices.
The word sacrifice comes from two Latin terms which together mean “to make holy.” This is why making sacrifices is an essential part of the Christian life.
You see, only God can make something holy. We can’t. In making a sacrifice, we are giving to God a part of our lives so that God can make it holy. Wow! That is so much more than just giving up something for 40 days. When we make a sacrifice as a Christian disciple, we are not throwing something away or just practicing self-discipline. Rather, we are actively giving to God something dear to us so that God can receive that gift and use it for his purposes.
If we understand sacrifice in this way, why would we ever hold anything back from God? After all, what we don’t offer to God isn’t made holy, and what is not holy is not eternal. Any part of our lives that we are not offering to God to be used for his purposes is an unholy part of us. That’s worthy of reflection always, but especially during the 40 days of Lent.
It’s important to remember that Jesus alone is the one eternal sacrifice acceptable to the Father. We are all imperfect and sinful. We can only be made holy in Christ Jesus since we have no merit of our own apart from him.
In his gracious love, Jesus invites us to offer our lives with him to the Father so that we become part of his one perfect eternal act of self-giving to God. This invitation is offered to us at all times throughout our day as we make personal offerings, but it is also offered in a particularly graced way at every Mass when we offer our gifts and the priest prays that “my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.” In that moment, each of us is given the opportunity and privilege of spiritually placing our lives on the altar so as to be joined with Jesus, be transformed by him, and become his body - the holy instrument of God’s presence and action in the world. By being joined to Jesus in this way through the sacrifice of the Mass, it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us. (see Galatians 2:20)
What part of your life are you holding back from God’s transforming and sanctifying grace? Perhaps these 40 days of Lent can be a time when you specifically offer to God those parts that most need to be made holy and discover what the Lord can do in you and through you.
Read the Spanish version of this column.
Northwest Catholic - March 2019
Daniel Mueggenborg is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.