Each of the sacraments provides a way to think of the whole Christian life. In the past two weeks, we have seen how Baptism helps us think of “the life of rebirth” and Confirmation “the apostolic life.” The Eucharist, greatest of the sacraments, actually gives us two central images, according to the two things we do with the Eucharist: sacrifice and communion. (Technically, the Eucharist gives us an exterior act, sacrifice, because Christ becomes present on the altar, and not only in our souls.) These two aspects of the Eucharist, like all of the sacraments and all of the Christian life, are inextricably entwined. But we can talk about them one by one: sacrifice this week, communion next week.
There is some confusion about what “sacrifice” means. In modern English, sacrifice means something like pain for a higher good. If we work hard to go to college, we call that sacrifice.
But when the Church calls the Eucharist a sacrifice, that just isn’t the way we are using the word. (It’s unfortunate that we have to do this – to give a Catholic definition of words that is different from the “normal” definition. But we live in a culture that doesn’t understand worship, so there are going to be problems of language.)
The Catholic definition of sacrifice differs from the normal English one in two ways. First, sacrifice is not for just any good. By sacrifice we mean “only for God.” Sacrifice is what you only do for God. In that sense, “sacrificing for college” is just a contradiction.
Second, pain isn’t the point. For God is the point. Sacrifice does not always involve pain. In the Bible, some sacrifices are holocausts – up in smoke – but some are feasts, the very opposite of pain. The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, because it involves both death and resurrection, is actually both: both pain and celebration. But what makes something a sacrifice, in the Bible, in Augustine, in Thomas Aquinas, in the Catholic understanding, is that we do it for God.
The sacrificial life is a life ordered to God.
The heart of sacrifice is thanksgiving – which is why the most important name for the Eucharist is not “communion,” but “Eucharist,” the Greek word for thanksgiving. At Mass we give thanks to God: for his goodness that we read about in the Bible, for all of creation, for our lives (both the nice things and the hard things), and above all for the grace he pours out on us in Jesus.
Jesus left us a “memorial” of his passion: he left us a way, a concrete practice, of giving thanks. The heart of the Eucharist is simply to recall what he has done, and do the thing, the sacrifice, that he gave us as the perfect way of calling to mind and giving thanks for his goodness to us.
Sacrifice is not about pain. It is about justice – “it is right and just.” It is about doing what is right, what we ought to do. “Make justice your sacrifice,” says the Psalm (4:5), and the refrain runs throughout the Bible, in a thousand ways. When we do what is right, purely because it is the right thing to do, we make justice our sacrifice. We give thanks to God by embracing the life and the duties he has given us. (We deny thanks to God by refusing the duties he has given us.)
This is where pain is relevant to sacrifice. Often our duties, the right thing, is not what we feel like doing. A right sense of mortification focuses not on how we can hurt ourselves – which is hardly part of an attitude of thanksgiving – but on doing the right thing even when it hurts. It is good, and right, to rejoice at the suffering when we know that it is because we are doing what is right. The pain – even the little pains, like getting up to help when we’ve just put our feet up – are a reminder, not of the goodness of pain (pain is not good in itself!), but of the goodness of doing what is right and just.
We could make our life thanksgiving, make our life Eucharistic, just by adopting that line from the Mass, “It is right and just!”
Thanksgiving longs for expression. The tradition calls the most important part “interior sacrifice”: truly being thankful. But we physical beings need to express that through “exterior sacrifices”: acts of thanksgiving.
How do you give thanks in your day? How do you make your life a sacrifice of praise?