Sunday, February 2, 2014

a meditation on sacrifice

The Feast of the Presentation of our Lord, Year A
February 2, 2014
St. George’s Chapel

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God's alone. Amen. 

Presentation of Jesus in the temple

Today we commemorate the feast of the presentation of our Lord. In Jewish tradition, all firstborn sons were to be taken to the temple around 40 days after their birth. There, the parents would sacrifice a sheep--or, if they couldn’t afford a sheep, some birds--to redeem, or buy back, their sons from having to serve as temple priests*. This served as a reminder of the tenth and final plague in Egypt, where the angel of death killed all the first-born sons of the Egyptians, but left the Israelite children alone (Exodus 13:15).  

I don’t know about you, but I get a little uncomfortable when I think about religious animal sacrifices. They seem so barbaric or cruel, like a waste of life. I’m grateful that, as your priest, I don’t have to slaughter animals and burn them on the altar; it would be a bit much for this vegetarian to handle. 

But before we get too smug and think that Christianity is different than or superior to other religions because we don’t have these types of sacrifices, remember that sacrifice, in one form or another, is a component of pretty much all major world religions.  We worship a God whose Son willingly sacrificed himself for our sins. The symbol for Christianity is the instrument of his death. When we gather together for Communion, we break bread and drink wine, but it is more than just food and drink; it is the Body and Blood of Jesus, shed for us. 

If you think about it, sacrifice is essential to Christianity. But most of the time, we don’t like to think about it. It’s much easier to just think of God as this nice but far removed entity who created us and then pretty much left us alone and just wants us to be happy. This, however, is not the God we worship. But--we might think--what kind of God would demand human sacrifice? Isn’t that extreme?

In the letter to the Romans, Paul tells us that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23). The collective sin of humans couldn’t be ignored, but had to be addressed. If there were no punishment for misbehavior, then what would stop people from doing wrong? Our sin demanded a response. 

But the beautiful and amazing thing about this is that God responded by providing a way out for all of us. God, in Jesus, became flesh and blood, just like us. Jesus was raised by his mother and adopted father, roughhoused and argued with his siblings, experienced fear and love and temptation, just like us. Jesus taught the world about God’s love for us and how we are to respond with love for God and all of God’s creation.   And in response to our sins, Jesus offered to take our place, once and for all. Jesus freely gave up his life for ours, restoring our relationship with God. 

Our eucharistic liturgy uses sacrificial language to commemorate this incredible gift. Jesus “stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself in obedience to [God’s] will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world” (BCP 362). After the bread is broken we say, “Alleluia. Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” (BCP 364). 

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Jesus sacrificed himself for us and promised us eternal life, redeeming us--buying us back--from the hands of death. But while there is no longer a requirement for human sacrifice, it does not mean that sacrifice isn’t still in the picture.  

Sacrifice is a part of everyday life. In sports, there’s the familiar saying, “no pain, no gain.” Olympic athletes sacrifice money as well as years of their lives devoting themselves to a particular sport. They train, pushing their bodies beyond normal limits. They have special diets. They often have to be away from their families for weeks, months, sometimes even years. They give up normal lives for the chance to represent their countries doing what they love. 

The same goes for musicians. In order to become proficient at or master playing an instrument, you have to practice, sacrificing time spent doing other things. Performance majors in college are expected to practice anywhere from 4-10 hours a day, depending on their instrument. I can only imagine that professional musicians practice more. 

Other professions require sacrifice, as well, whether it be the money and time spent on getting the degree or certification, or the long hours and extra projects, or the medical charts or grading papers or planning curriculum. 

Almost anything in our lives, or at least anything worth doing, requires some aspect of sacrifice. Relationships between people are no different. We compromise on everything from meal choices to vacations to how to discipline kids to where (and when) to retire. We sacrifice time spent with friends to spend time with our spouses, and vice versa. We sacrifice living near our families if we find our dream job. We sacrifice sleep if our loved one needs help writing a last-minute paper or *ahem* sermon. 

Having a relationship with God involves sacrifices, too. Going to church on Sunday morning instead of golfing. Giving up a few extra minutes of sleep in order to start the day in prayer. Setting aside some of your hard-earned money to give back in thanksgiving for God’s blessings. Spending the morning ushering or serving or being a crossing guard or teaching Sunday School rather than sitting in the congregation. Volunteering at the thrift shop or homeless shelter rather than relaxing at home. The eucharistic prayer even speaks of the celebration of communion as a “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” (BCP 363). We offer up to God our praise and thanksgiving for the gift of life in this world and for the sacrifice Christ made so we could live in the next. 

After her husband dies, the prophet Anna devotes the rest of her life to fasting and praying to God. Simeon, a righteous and devout man, has been promised by the Holy Spirit “that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah” (Luke 2:26). Both Anna and Simeon, in their old age, recognize the hope of redemption that the child Jesus brings to the world. As he cradles Jesus in his arms, he says words immortalized in the service of compline, “Lord, you now have set your servant free* to go in peace as you have promised; for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,* whom you have prepared for all the world to see: A light to enlighten the nations,* and the glory of your people Israel” (BCP 135). 

The assurance of God’s love comes to us in the form of our Savior, Jesus. In his sacrifice, we have been freed from the bondage of sin and are welcomed into eternal life. Because of his sacrifice, we are also able to “go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Thanks be to God!” (BCP 366).

Image found here.

*Information on the Jewish custom of presentation found here.

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