A cursory exploration of the word, sacrifice, will give such definitions as, “an act of slaughtering an animal or person or surrendering a possession as an offering to a deity.” There is also the concept of “giving up something valued for the sake of something else more important.” In the game of Chess, it is a “move intended to allow the opponent to win a piece for strategic or tactical reasons.” During Lent, we sacrifice or give up something we like in order to grow in virtue. A common notion of sacrifice is that, by destroying something as an offering to God we acknowledge His sovereignty. All of this might be informative but it doesn’t tell us WHY we sacrifice and, more importantly, what it means to our lives.
In today’s first reading we hear of Moses taking the blood of sacrificed animals and sprinkling it on the altar and then on the people. He has presented the Lord’s covenant and the people have accepted. The sprinkling of blood represents a sealing of the covenant but, when he sprinkles the altar AND the people, he is symbolically showing union with God. We should also notice, in the second reading, Paul’s comparing the blood of goats and calves to the blood of Christ.
In the Old Testament, God warns His people many times not to drink the blood of sacrificed animals. They considered blood to be the essence of life for a living creature. To drink the blood of an animal, a lower form of life, would demean our own human lives. This is why this practice in pagan idol worship was forbidden. It lowers a person rather than raises him to a higher level. It unites a person to a false, dead god rather than the One God who gives us true life.
Now let us enter into the theology of sacrifice. Cardinal Ratzinger, in his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, concludes that the essence of sacrifice is deification, a concept that may be counter-intuitive to our normal way of thinking. When we sacrifice something, we should have at heart the surrender of ourselves, our very existence, to the greater glory of God. In doing so, we give up control—and our very life—so that He, in turn, can unite us to Him in a higher form of Life.
In the sacrifice of the Mass, we unite ourselves to Christ’s total surrender of self-will, especially when we eat His body and Drink His blood. In uniting our surrender of self-will to His total sacrifice, we become one with Him.
The ideas expressed above come partially from an article by David Augustine titled, Sacrifice as Deification: Reflections on the Augustinian Foundations of Ratzinger’s Sacrificial Theology, published in Adoremus, July 16, 2016.