Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Dn 12:1-3; Ps 16:5, 8, 9-10, 11; Heb 10:11-14, 18; Mk 13:24-32
In the Second Reading for this coming Sunday, the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of the “one sacrifice for sins.” The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus render unnecessary all other sacrifices for sins. Redemption is already accomplished through Christ. And yet, sacrifice remains a live category for us as we discern the Christian moral life. How can this be?
The sacrifices of our discipleship are not of the sort that can reconcile fallen humanity with its Creator; they are not sacrifices that open up the very possibility of union with God. Yet, the sacrifices of discipleship do attempt to imitate the self-emptying love of Christ. In this way, they awaken us to the gratuitousness of divine mercy and give us the courage to accept it with our feeble gratitude.
But sacrifice still remains a troublesome proposition even when we understand the sacrifices of discipleship as connected to but distinct from the “one sacrifice for sins.” The critique of feminist ethics should not go without note. If we align sin with pride, aggression, and all manner of excessive self-assertion, then sacrifice seems to be a fitting alternative. However, if we expand our view, especially to those who find themselves subordinated or marginalized, sin may look more like self-destructive submission. And in this context, the call to lead a sacrificial life of Christian discipleship can reinforce self-destructive inclinations that detract from dignity and true flourishing.
A further complication is the nature of sacrifice itself. Understood as a propitiatory offering, sacrifice is utilized to placate the anger of an authority (which is then typically associated with enduring a penalty). Scholars have argued, however, that the authentic scriptural meaning of sacrifice extends much beyond propitiation, including thanksgiving and obedience. Peter Schmiechen maintains that “sacrifices for sin in the Bible were acts of purification (i.e., the removal of sin) instituted by God. They were not sacrifices offered as compensation to God.” Thus, a theological rendering of sacrifice should not be used interchangeably with notions of penalty and suffering.
The purpose of sacrifice in the Christian moral life is not to undergo suffering. The purpose of sacrifice is not to legitimate a destructive submission to others. Sacrifice ought to be first and foremost an act of gratitude. And this act of thanksgiving is what carries the purifying force. Our merciful giving is a participation in the act of mercy that was first bestowed on us. Even the most radical acts of generosity should therefore be rooted in an act of joy.
Our sacrifices cannot wipe away our sins. And we give thanks because they need not; there has already been the “one sacrifice” to do that.