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Since the most important of all the means of grace, the holy Mass, is a sacrifice, it is necessary first of all to speak of sacrifice in general. The word “to sacrifice” means to offer something valuable to some person as a token of affection for, or dependence on that person; or to surrender something that we prize for the sake of another. If a father gives all he has to his sons to enable them to pursue their studies, and himself lives in straitened circumstances, he is said to make a great sacrifice for his children. When a soldier marches to battle for the defence of his country at the risk of life and limb, he is said to sacrifice himself for his country. By a sacrifice to God is signified something given up to God. Out of love to Him the poor widow cast into the treasury the last two mites which she possessed; in doing this she made a great sacrifice for God’s sake (Mark xii. 43). Tobias did the same, when in captivity he distributed alms to his poorer fellow-countrymen, and at peril of his own life buried the bodies of the slain (Tob. i.). The Jews made a sacrifice, when after the giving of the law, they brought gold, silver, precious stones, purple, etc., to Moses for the making of the tabernacle (Exod. xxxv.). We are told in Holy Scripture that to keep the commandments, to depart from injustice, and to do mercy, is to offer sacrifice (Ecclus. xxxv. 2-4). The essential part of a sacrifice is the surrender or renunciation of some object which we highly prize. Of old, if any one desired to accentuate his surrender of the object he valued, he used to destroy it completely; thus rendering it impossible for him ever to recover possession of it. The sacrifices offered by Cain, Abel, and Noe, were of this nature. Abel slaughtered and burned the firstlings of his flock; his brother Cain offered of the fruits of the earth gifts unto the Lord (Gen. iv. 3, 5). Noe, on leaving the ark, took some of the animals and offered them as holocausts upon the altar he had built (Gen. viii. 20).
1. Hence the word sacrifice signifies the voluntary surrender or the destruction of an object which we value, to give honor to God as our supreme Lord.
It is no uncommon thing among men to present a valuable present to some one as a sign of respect or an act of homage. Subjects not unfrequently offer the best produce of their land or their skill to their monarch. So we ought to give to God what we most value. And as in a State there are certain honors which it is the exclusive prerogative of the ruler to receive, so the offering of sacrifice is an act of homage which can be paid only to God.
2. There are bloody and unbloody sacrifices.
As may be seen from the sacrifices of Cain and Abel, the oblation offered in sacrifice varied according to the nature of the possessions of him who offered it. Either a victim, such as an ox, a lamb, a dove, was taken from the animal kingdom (this was a bloody sacrifice, because the blood of the victim was shed), or an oblation was taken from the vegetable kingdom, some species of food, such as flour or fruit, or drink, wine, for instance (this was an unbloody sacrifice, because it was without shedding of blood). The animals used to be slaughtered, their blood poured upon the altar, and their flesh either consumed entirely by fire, or eaten in part by the priests and Levites. The fruits of the earth were either burned or eaten; wine was poured as a libation on or before the altar.
3. The intention of a sacrifice may be to give honor to God, to give thanks to Him, to entreat a favor, or make propitiation.
The offering of a sacrifice gives outward expression to the feelings of the heart. The man who has a due knowledge of God, who knows Him to be the almighty Creator, the wise and bountiful Preserver and Euler of the world, will be penetrated with sentiments of respect, of gratitude, of confidence, and of contrition. And since it belongs to the nature of man to manifest outwardly what he feels inwardly, he will evince these sentiments by the surrender, the renunciation or destruction of some object that he values. These sentiments are essential to a sacrifice without them it would be mere hypocrisy consequently the sentiment of compunction is of itself sometimes designated a sacrifice (Ps. 1. 19). Sacrifices of praise used to be offered daily in the Temple; Noe’s sacrifice was a sacrifice of thanks giving, while the sacrifices which Judas Machabeus caused to be offered before going to battle were deprecatory sacrifices; those offered for the warriors who fell in the fight were expiatory sacrifices (2 Mach. xii. 43).
4. The custom of offering sacrifices has existed in all times and among all nations of the world.
Sacrifices have been customary from time immemorial. They were offered by Cain and Abel, the children of the first man and the first woman. They are found among Jews and Gentiles. The Jewish high priest offered an oblation morning and evening in the name of the people; first he burned incense upon the altar, then he offered an unbloody sacrifice consisting of flour, oil and frankincense (Lev. vi. 14), and finally a sacrifice in which was shedding of blood, the victim being a lamb of one year old, without blemish, together with an oblation of food and drink (Exod. xxix. 38). On the Sabbath day two lambs of a year old, together with bread and wine, were immolated in addition to the daily oblation (Numb, xxviii. 9). Special sacrifices were also appointed for certain feasts. The heathen nations also offered sacrifices, but their ideas on the subject were perverted, for they offered human sacrifices, and not to the true God, but to idols. Hence St. Paul says: “The things which the heathen sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils and not to God” (1 Cor. x. 20). We read in Holy Scripture that the King of Moab took his oldest son and offered him for a . burnt-offering upon the wall, in order to obtain help against the Israelites (4 Kings iii. 27). The Phoenicians and other Asiatic people used yearly to immolate young children to their god Moloch, the brazen statue of the deity being made red-hot, and the children cast into its arms. The custom of offering human sacrifices formerly prevailed to a great extent in Mexico; it is said that the number of victims slaughtered yearly amounted to no less than twenty thousand. Human sacrifices are not yet entirely abolished, they are still customary among savages, notably among some African and Indian tribes. How sad is the condition of man without the Christian faith!
5. The chief motives which urge mankind to offer sacrifice are: The consciousness of sin and the desire for reconciliation with God and because God often required or sanctioned the sacrifice.
The consciousness of sin was a powerful incentive to man to offer sacrifices. St. Paul says: “In them there is made a commemoration of sins every year” (Heb. x. 3), and again: “Without shedding of blood there is no remission” (Heb. ix. 22). God not unfrequently showed His approbation of sacrifice; He testified His acceptance of Abel’s offering (Gen. iv. 4). Of Noe’s (Gen. viii. 21), of the holocaust offered by the prophet Elias, which was consumed by fire from heaven (3 Kings xviii. 38). On many occasions God required a sacrifice, as that of Isaac (Gen. xxii.). He gave minute directions concerning the sacrificial offerings to the Jews by Moses lips (Lev. i.-vii.; xvi.; xxii.). The knowledge that God approved of and even* demanded sacrifices from man was a potent motive inducing him to offer them.
6. The sacrifices of the Jewish nation, more particularly that of the paschal lamb and the victim of expiation, were typical of the great sacrifice that the Redeemer was to offer on Mount Calvary.
In the Old Testament everywhere there is shedding of blood; this was typical of the blood of Christ, whereby we are purified. On the great Day of Atonement one of the ceremonies consisted in this: The high priest laid both his hands upon the head of one of the goats which were to be offered up for the people, confessing at the same time the iniquities of the children of Israel, and praying that they might light upon the head of the animal; thereupon the goat was turned out into the desert, to express symbolically that the sins of the people were taken away out of God’s sight. Since the Jewish sacrifices were but a foreshadowing of Our Lord’s expiatory sacrifice, they ceased after this was offered, as had been foretold by the prophets (Dan. ix. 27; Osee iii. 4). Nor were the sacrifices of the heathen anything more or less than a seeking after the true sacrifice of atonement; the victims were without blemish, a pure and spotless oblation; moreover everywhere the persuasion seemed to prevail that “it is impossible that with the blood of oxen and goats sin should be taken away” (Heb. x. 4), or that the Deity should be propitiated by any other similar victims. A victim of infinite value was needed to reconcile God with man.
This article, 1. ON SACRIFICE IN GENERAL is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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