Nigel J. Bunce
The verb ‘sacrifice’ means ‘to make holy’.
It derives from a Latin word sacrificium that combines the elements ‘sacer’ (holy) and the verb ‘facere’ (to make or do).
Sacrifice does not necessarily involve killing, although an animal or human being may indeed be made holy through its death. Thus, the animals killed in the ancient world’s temples, both Jewish and pagan, were ‘made holy’ when priests said special prayers as the animals were killed. This made the meat sacrificed holy, and therefore acceptable for offering to the temple god.
Similarly, we sacrifice (make holy) ordinary bread and wine with special prayers at Communion.
Whatever our theology of the consecrated elements, in the spectrum from transubstantiation to memorial, we treat the consecrated bread and wine with respect.
For example, we do not throw leftovers in the garbage or down the drain. But notice that ordinary bread and wine, like the animals sacrificed in ancient temples, are not innately holy. We make them holy by our actions.
Christian theology concerning Christ’s death on the Cross is both the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, parallel to the sacrifice of the lambs at the first Passover, and also a sacrifice in the greater cause of defeating human sin.
This is the theology of atonement, as elaborated in Paul’s letter to the Romans [3: 24-25]. “All … are now justified by [God’s] grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood.”
A secular idea of sacrifice for a greater good is seen in chess, when a player deliberately loses a piece in order to gain an advantage.
In modern warfare, the word sacrifice has become inextricably bound up with the deaths of soldiers killed in battle. Formerly, soldiers merely ‘died’ in wars. Most of them were conscripts or mercenaries, who were indentured to fight for their king or emperor. Beyond their loved ones, they went unremembered.
That changed in the 20th century, perhaps to give meaning to the otherwise pointless deaths of soldiers in battles such as the Somme.
War memorials ennobled those who perished. They did not just die, but ‘became holy’ for a worthy cause such as the German Fatherland or the British Empire or La France. In WW II and later, they died in the causes of saving the world from Nazism or Communism.
Grace before meals is a sacrificial offering if it includes giving thanks for the animals and plants whose lives were terminated so that we can nourish our bodies. By blessing the food, we make it holy.
In some of our Eucharistic prayers we offer ourselves as “a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” [BCP, 1962, p. 83; BAS Eucharistic Prayer 3, p.199]. This has nothing to do with death. BAS Eucharistic Prayer 1 [p. 195] makes this abundantly clear: we “make ourselves holy” by offering praise and thanksgiving to God. Further, “Send your Holy Spirit upon us … that all who eat and drink at this table may be … a living sacrifice in Jesus Christ, our Lord.”
Likewise, the words used at our baptism have the clear intent of making us holy. “Now sanctify (make holy) this water, that your servants who are washed in it may be made one with Christ …” [BAS, p. 157; also p. 158].
In summary, many Christians have misconceptions about the word sacrifice. It does not have to be associated with death. It simply means “to make holy”.
May we always see ourselves as living sacrifices, made holy through the waters of baptism.
The Reverend Nigel J. Bunce is Priest-in-charge, St. George’s Lowville.