OFFERING A PURE AND VIRTUOUS SACRIFICE
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ Ecc 35:1-12; Ps 50:5-8, 14, 23; Mark 10:28-31 ]
We are called to offer sacrifices to the Lord. “Do not appear empty-handed in the Lord’s presence; for all these things are due under the commandment. A virtuous man’s offering graces the altar, and its savour rises before the Most High. A virtuous man’s sacrifice is acceptable, its memorial will not be forgotten.” How then should we offer a pure sacrifice?
The most common way is through rituals, the offering of animals in ancient days and in some religions today. For us Christians, we offer the Sacrifice of the mass, worship and prayers. However, the truth is that God does not need our sacrifices. This is what the psalmist says, “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?” (Ps 50:12f) In Isaiah, the Lord said, “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.” (Isa 1:11)
Why then do we still offer sacrifices? They are offered principally for three reasons. Firstly, we have the sacrifice of atonement. The offering of animal sacrifices was an expression of the sorrow of the people for their sins. The animal took the place of “punishment” on behalf of the people as a repayment for their sins. But it is also a sacrifice for the people because to offer an animal was costly. More than just an expression of atonement, it is important that those who offer sacrifices be truly committed to living a righteous life. This is what Sirach teaches us in the first reading. “A man multiplies offerings by keeping the Law. Withdraw from wickedness and the Lord will be pleased, withdraw from injustice and you make atonement.” So true repentance and sorrow for our sins implies the desire to live from now on the commandments of the Lord. It means to live a life of justice towards our fellowmen. Otherwise, the sacrificial offering is merely external and not genuinely that which comes from the heart. The psalmist says, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Ps 51:17)
Secondly, a sacrifice is offered in thanksgiving to remind us that we are dependent on God. “Honour the Lord with generosity, do not stint the first fruits you bring. Add a smiling face to all your gifts, and be cheerful as you dedicate your tithes. Give to the Most High as he has given to you, generously as your means can afford; for the Lord is a good rewarder, he will reward you seven times over.” The reason why we give tithes is to remember that all we have come from God. An offering of thanksgiving is not something that is forced on us but comes from a grateful and thankful heart. Otherwise, the sacrifice would be worthless because the Lord loves a cheerful giver. St Paul wrote, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.” (2 Cor 9:7f)
However, this thanksgiving is not confined simply to offering gifts to the Lord but also to our fellowmen. “By showing gratitude he makes an offering of fine flour, by giving alms he offers a sacrifice of praise.” We are called not just to offer thanksgiving to God by helping the Church but also to extend helping hands to those who are poor and in need of help because they too are God’s children. As St James says, “Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (Jms 2:14-17) A thankful heart is always a generous and giving heart towards God and others.
Thirdly, we have the communion sacrifice. This was done through the offering of the animal when part of the animal was burnt as a symbol of God partaking of the sacrifice and the other part eaten by the people. It is therefore a symbol of communion. This is what we do at every Eucharist. The mass is not just a sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins through the shedding of the blood of Christ but also a sacred meal whereby we receive His body and blood and become in communion with Him. Again, our communion with the Lord is to bring about our communion with our fellowmen. Communion sacrifice is not just a vertical communion but it has a horizontal dimension as well. For this reason, “he offers communion sacrifices by following the commandments.” The sign that we are in communion with the Lord is when we follow His commandments and laws. “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.” (Jn 14:23f)
In the final analysis, the perfect sacrifice is the offering of one’s life to God and for our fellowmen. In the letter of Hebrews, the Lord says what He wants from us is the offering of ourselves, not the animal sacrifices. “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings, you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God.'” (Heb 10:6f) Giving of our entire self is what the Lord is asking of us if we want to offer a pure and perfect sacrifice. Jesus for us is that perfect sacrifice. “And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Heb 10:10) Giving ourselves entirely to the Lord is what a virtuous sacrifice entails. St Paul exhorts the Christians, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Rom 12:1)
However, in giving ourselves entirely to the Lord, our motives must be clear. We must bear in mind that the offering of ourselves is for the atonement of our sins, as an expression of gratitude to God for His blessings; and to be in communion with Him in love and truth. The temptation for us is to offer these sacrifices with not so noble motives. Even the apostles followed the Lord and offered their lives to serve Him when in truth they were not intending to serve Him but themselves. The Lord said to His disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God. Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mk 10:23, 24b, 25) “The disciples were perplexed at these words. They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?'” (Mk 10:24a, 26) It was a scandal to them as it is to us.
Many of us who serve the Lord expect the Lord to treat us well. We expect the Lord to bless us with wealth, health, status and a good life. This was what Peter and the apostles thought as well. Peter asked Jesus, “What about us? We have left everything and followed you.” Many good Catholics are scandalized that they suffer much by serving the Lord, when they are misunderstood, wrongly criticized and unappreciated in church ministries. Sometimes they suffer in their personal life because of tragedies that struck the family, quarrels and divisions or health issues concerning loved ones. They feel that the Lord had betrayed them. This was what St Teresa of Avila complained to the Lord. Once, she was travelling to another convent and she fell off a horse while crossing a cold stream. The current was so strong. She lost her footing and was almost swept away. When she complained to the Lord, He said, “Do not complain, daughter, for it is ever thus that I treat My friends.” St Teresa responded, “Ah, Lord, it is also on that account that you have so few!”
The truth is that the Lord’s promise is not primarily that of this world. The values of the Kingdom are not the values of this world. Hence, He said, “Many who are first will be last, and the last first.” He has come to change the world’s value system. Instead of power, He spoke of service. Instead of glory, He spoke of the joy of making a difference in the lives of others. Instead of controlling and dominating people, He spoke of being one with them in fraternal love as brothers and sisters. Instead of territory, He spoke of a love that transcends space and time. This was what the Lord said to Peter, “I tell you solemnly, there is no one who has left house, brothers, sisters, father, children or land for my sake and the sake of the gospel who will not be repaid a hundred times over, houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and land – not without persecutions – now in this present time and, in the world to come, eternal life.” So we need to purify ourselves even when we offer sacrifices to the Lord, both ritually and even in good deeds. Let us offer our sacrifice with pure, holy and contrite hearts with minds renewed in Christ, for St Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom 12:2)
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
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