Thursday, February 18, 2010

It's No Sacrifice


Alright, I have two more things to say about the Eucharistic prayer. Both are confessions; one today, one Monday.

You may have noticed at some point that man, it sort of took a long time to get to the eucharistic prayer. Like, how many entries did I have about the gifts, for God's sake? Let alone the petitions! It was almost like I was...stalling.

It turns out, yeah, I sort of was. And the reason is the content of today's post.

I've been a Jesuit almost 18 years. And I've been a priest almost 7. And I've been a Catholic all my life, in one way or another.

But I have never, ever, ever understood the notion that by dying Jesus somehow wiped the slate clean for the rest of us. How does the brutal betrayal and murder of anyone -- let alone the son of God -- result in anyone thinking that it's all good? To me, that has always been this bizarro sort of equation that just does not compute.

One response is, well, he went willingly. Which is amazing and a huge example for us of the trust we're invited to have. I want to be like that; I want to love people so much that I'd be willing to fight for them even if they hate me and want me dead. But how does being murdered willingly make it OK?

Another, more common answer is, well, he put himself in the place of the paschal lamb, who was traditionally sacrificed for sins. And there's a lot behind that we don't want to jump into now, about animal sacrifice and the achievement of communal purity. But just taking it at face value, the problem is, this isn't a lamb, it's a person. And so what we're talking about on some level is human sacrifice as a means of redemption. Which veers into territory where violence is an acceptable means of easing social unrest (and is justified because it eases that unrest). It's not us, it's him, and once we kill him, it'll all be good.

This is exactly what the Jewish leaders and the Romans did to Jesus, and how they thought about it. Kill him, stop the questions he raises, problem solved. But rather than reaffirming this practice Jesus' death put the lie to that system, because it revealed that at the heart of such practices lies an innocent victim. That at the end of the day we're talking about killing an innocent man. The crucifixes we wear and with which we decorate our faith communities are a constant reminder of that fact. Somebody, in fact not just anybody but the one guy who came to love us unconditionally, the Son of God, was murdered. And people just like us murdered him.

To me, saying that it's all good because he died to redeem us is a way of avoiding that hugely uncomfortable fact about ourselves -- that we are capable of truly black, evil deeds. And it can also be a way of avoiding the fullness of the sacrifice Jesus made, because on some level we can turn back to this mathematical mumbo jumbo and whisper to ourselves, well, it was all for the best. Or, as I sometimes hear, it had to happen.

As the lady says, Well, isn't that convennnieent?

So when I hear in Eucharistic Prayer III, "Look with favor on your Church's offering, and see the Victim whose death has reconciled us to yourself," I get a little queasy.

In school, I learned a way of resolving this, to some extent. Scripturally, the Passion draws on an image in the middle part of Isaiah (called Second Isaiah), which we hear during Lent, that imagines the savior of the community as bringing it out of exile and back into good relationship with God by being completely faithful to the way of the Lord. According to Second Isaiah, if just one person can take that hard path of love and self-sacrifice through the desert, God will not give up on us. And that's what Jesus did. He reconciled us by being faithful to the bitter end.

The word sacrifice comes from two Latin words which literally mean to "make holy". And holiness scripturally is not exactly about purity, but about God choosing a group and setting them aside for himself. It's about a special relationship. What we believe happens in the eucharist is the renewal of that relationship; but the sacrifice we're talking about is the whole path of his life and death that Jesus willingly trod. And when we say we're made holy, we don't mean sin is gone, or that we're pure or all better; we mean that our relationship with God is restored.

Say if you want, Jesus died as a result of our sins. But take the step of saying he died in order to redeem our sins, that the point was him being murdered rather than him staying faithful to the end, and we are reaffirming a screwed-up ancient equation that makes absolutely no sense.

There's plenty of room to debate my conclusions. Just sharing one of my struggles.

Monday, one last thing about the eucharistic prayer -- what it's like to pray it -- and then off we go to the ends of the Mass!

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