Why on earth did Abraham presume that God wanted him to engage in the human sacrifice of his son, Isaac? Why would Abraham agree to that? And why would God have asked of him such a terrible thing?
To answer these questions we have to understand the word “sacrifice.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines sacrifice as “a ritual offering made to God by a priest on behalf of the people, as a sign of adoration, gratitude, supplication, and communion. The perfect sacrifice was Christ’s death on the cross.”
You can begin to see, then, that our reading from Genesis will lead us to a greater understanding of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and that will lead us to a greater understanding of the “holy sacrifice of the Mass.”
That’s where we’re headed, but we still have to better understand sacrifice. Why? Because by the very fact that we live at this point in human history, it is very difficult to wrap our minds around sacrifice. Why? Because we are children of our times, creations of our culture; and our culture tends toward sacrificing only for oneself: to be thinner, to have a better physical condition, to be willing to move to another state if I can better my salary, to do things my peer group does so as to fit in better. In other words, our culture is a culture of narcissism, a culture of looking out for oneself, seeking after what is going to benefit me, my family, and my projects. Sacrifice for the good of others is often on a lower rung of priorities for the children of this generation. And giving up something really important as a gift to God does not make sense to this generation.
To understand our times we should add on to our culture of narcissism another cultural element: to be more secularized, to act as if God does not matter, to make decisions as if God is irrelevant, to engage in acts that are seen as having nothing to do with God.
There! I think I have described why it is so difficult for us to understand sacrifice as an act of devotion to God, and sacrifice for the good of others.
So let’s stretch our minds to rise above our culture and see what sacrifice has meant at other times in history, less materialistic times, times that were less forgetful of God.
The wisdom of the ages is that being human, truly human, fully human, requires a sense of devotion to something greater than oneself.
Here are the kinds of people who know the meaning of sacrifice: Scientists who enter fully into their discipline for the sake of discovering something that will benefit the whole human race; good politicians who want to do something to better society and not just seek office for the sake of recognition or power; teachers who genuinely care about their students and don’t count the cost of assisting them to measure up to their abilities. Yes, we understand sacrifice and all of know people who genuinely give of themselves for the sake of others. We know hem, but they’re rare.
Sacrifice means going out of my way and denying self for the sake of the common good. Sacrifice means giving up something I enjoy or desire or think to be my due. Sacrifice means giving of myself, my time, my money, my skill to express my devotion, my love, like someone who takes into their home an aging or ill relative or friend, or someone who cannot repay.
And when sacrifice is raised to a higher level, it becomes a way of life in relation to the One, the Only, God, the supreme desire of our souls. When one has fallen in love with God, everything else is of a lesser category, and one would be willing to sacrifice anything so as to enter more fully into that relationship with God.
Only now can we begin to understand the sacrifice of Abraham. In his culture human sacrifice was common. We cannot understand this today; or maybe we can, when we think of the sacrifice of babes in the womb for the sake of the false god of our times, self.
Now remember, Abraham was our father in faith, the first one to be called into relationship with the One God; and at the very beginning of the story of faith, we see this:
- that God blesses the desire to sacrifice as an expression of being fully dedicated to Him,
- but also God marks out at the very beginning of the Bible that there will be no human sacrifice in this new religion, the only human sacrifice will be God’s sacrifice of Himself to us on the cross.
Oh, there is so much to say, but let us hunker down to this: if we really knew sacrifice, we could not stay away from the sacrifice of the Mass.