Friday, November 4, 2011

Making Holy Offerings

Sacrifice, from sacre (holy) and facere (to make, do). A word whose roots mean “to make holy” but whose modern use is more understood as “to give up”. One definition is “the loss incurred in selling something below its value.” Certainly we still see some echoes of the origin in other definitions, such as “the surrender or destruction of something prized or desirable for the sake of something considered as having a higher or more pressing claim.” I think that this is a word in need of reflection, reevaluation, and a new respect.

Within the Jewish tradition from which Christianity grew, there were many types of sacrifice prescribed, predominately documented in Leviticus. As Christian practice was separated from the Temple and the Jewish practices of the day, the understanding and awareness of these various sacrifices which had been a part of the cultural identity and basic knowledge of the earliest Christians waned. In many ways this was good, as it allowed the followers of Christ to separate His teachings from the Jewish customs of the day and understand the scope of the New Covenant (Consider Acts 15). But in other ways it led to a loss of nuance and understanding in reading the scriptures which were in large part written to and for practicing Jews.

In particular, one element that was lost in general understanding was the nuance of sacrifice. While the Old Testament did feature a sacrifice in which the whole sacrifice was to be destroyed in the process of offering it to the Lord, it also contained many other forms of sacrifice in which a portion of the sacrifice was burnt to the lord, and the remainder was used for good purpose on earth. Some rites would give the meat to the priest and their family to meet their needs, others would share it among a community, still others would return most of the meat to the individual making the offering to be used for a feast to which he could invite anyone considered clean under the law. This is why the image of a sacrifice is so often linked with the image of a feast in Scripture.

The Last Supper is often interpreted and understood in just this light. To summarize: Not only is the High Priest making himself the sacrifice, but he is giving the feast to his followers, saying that the feast is for them all, and the blessings of this act will be upon them. Interestingly it does not seem that this deeper understanding of sacrifice propagates into the thoughts and understanding of other offerings.

As we seek to follow the example and teachings of Christ in all things, should we not follow them in making Sacrifice as well? When we make a sacrifice of our time, of our money, of our goods or talents, we should not accept, promote, or teach an idea in which these offerings simply go up to the Lord and benefit us spiritually in some nebulous way. The sacrifice of a Christian should be dedicated to the Lord, but the fruits should enrich and benefit His people here in this world. We accept too easily the idea that a sacrifice is simply gone, that we give something up to God does not, and has never, meant that it just goes away. We give our hearts to God, and we learn to love deeper, we give our hands to God and he uses us to do great works. So it is with all things, what we sacrifice to the Lord is not gone, if anything it is magnified. We make it holy and by such means God will see that it does more than we could imagine, just as with the feeding of the 5,000.

I want to promote a change in the way we use this word and teach this concept to our children and our neighbors. That we are willing to do with less is not the heart of sacrifice. That we are willing to give what we have that God can do what is best is. When children reach an age at which they desire to make an offering for the collection plate, that’s great news! But we should take that opportunity to make sure they understand what that money does. Use this as a chance to talk about the various ministries of the Church and how the donation makes them better.

Encourage a mindset in which sacrifice is not a burden to be taken when it must (selling at a loss), but a great opportunity to grow what we have to the benefit of more than just ourselves. If I could invest a dollar and after a year have a dollar twenty for myself, most people would applaud me for my windfall and good gains, but if I can sacrifice a dollar and do a dollar fifty of good, most people will congratulate me on doing without the dollar and taking a loss. This is the wrong mindset. We as Christians need to remember to love our neighbors as ourselves, which would lead to this being seen as an amazing investment and a good of far more than the dollar twenty I could have had for myself.

To summarize, I think we need to recognize that Christian sacrifice has two parts which both matter. 1) An offering dedicated to the Lord of our time, money, or other goods and talents given freely out of gratitude and fellowship. 2) The return of that which was dedicated to the Lord for the benefit and succor of the children of God. When we teach only the first part, we foster a false virtue of doing without and of lacking resources. If the good is only in the giving, then simply depriving ourselves with no goal or gain for any other becomes a virtue in itself. If we focus only on the second part, we can too easily remove God from our thoughts, and place the responsibility for helping others in someone else’s hands, putting the duty to aid others out of our hearts and minds by making it an obligation rather than an act of compassion.

It is my hope that if we take the time to look at this more complete view, we can transition our use of Sacrifice from a burden to bear like the Cross, to a chance we have to share with others as Christ has shared with us. Our chance to become a part of our community by giving of ourselves, just as Christ did with his disciples. Perhaps, if we remember that we are dedicating what we give to the Lord we won’t see it as something to fear, but as an opportunity to be His implement to do good. Perhaps, when we sell something for a loss, we need to remember that we have not made a sacrifice unless the god we are making an offering to is profit, and refrain from naming it one. Sometimes, the sacrifices we are called on to give may be burnt offerings, giving all we have to the Lord and never seeing what becomes of it, but we need to widen our modern notion of sacrifice to allow those forms of sacrifice which result in a feast among the faithful to be in our lives in more than just the Eucharist.

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