Part of a series on The Way of Love.

By Matthew S.C. Olver

With my body I thee worship.

Worship is one of those ubiquitous aspects of the Christian life that simultaneously unites Christians —who would question the imperative to worship? — and divides them. The different answers to the question, How should we worship?, are always swirling into the wreckage of Christian division. No doubt even the title of this series, given that it comes from Michael Curry and the Episcopal Church, has produced conflicting responses in various readers, along predictable lines. What do you mean by love?

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“With my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.”

Worship, if it to be truly biblical, entails two notions that appear to be in inexorable conflict.  Worship always costs us something; but it is a cost without loss.

This theme of death as the portal to life is not just embedded in the heart of the Christian narrative — cue John 3:16 — but it is also central to the New Testament’s vision of what it looks like to be made into part of the beloved community of Christ’s body. The very means of entrance into the Church is the sacrament of mortality: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom. 6:3).

The central word from Jesus linking his own self-offering to his description of discipleship is also the epigraph of one of most influential novels to explore the same, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24; see where Paul picks this up in 1 Cor. 15:36). The self-emptying Jesus, whether in the Incarnation or the Passion, unites humanity and divinity “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” He emptied himself and made the Uncontainable to be contained, “Equal to the Father as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father, as touching his Manhood.”

Both for our Lord, and all who name him as such, the pattern is that the way of the cross, which is to say, the Jesus Movement, “is none other than the way of life and peace” (BCP, 56, 99).

I want to suggest that sacrifice is the fundamental action that is constitutive of Christian worship. A true biblical sacrifice incarnates the definition of worship that I suggested earlier: Worship always costs us something; but it is a cost without loss.

Our hang-ups with the notion of sacrifice come when we work with a wonky definition of the term. The common contemporary use of the term implies loss, often unexpected or against one desire, but a loss that is worthwhile for some greater good that it brings about, such as the heroic death of a soldier to protect comrade and country. While some sacrifices entail the death of the offering, killing or death is not constitutive of biblical sacrifice (think of sacrifices of grain, wine, oil, incense). And it has nothing to do with attempting to manipulate God. If it were, the seemingly paltry offering on the Day of Atonement would have little likelihood of bringing about the intended effect (the atonement of a year’s worth of the sins of a whole people). Conversely, it makes the exorbitant sacrifice at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple all the more confusing (twenty-two thousand oxen and a hundred and twenty thousand sheep; 1 Kings 8:62). This makes no sense. Unless sacrifice is not always about death nor always concerned with the expiation of sins.

All of the earliest Christian interpretations of the Bible that come down to us witness to a striking pair of interpretive moves: the sacrifices of the law came to their fulfillment in the sacrifice of the cross; and Christians still sacrifice. Christ made a sacrifice for sin, once-for-all (Heb. 6:10 7:27; 9:12; 9:26; 10:10). Irenaeus explains: “And the class of oblations in general has not been set aside; for there were both oblations there [among the Jews], and there are oblations here [among the Christians]. Sacrifices there were among the people; sacrifices there are, too, in the Church: but the species alone has been changed” (Against Heresies IV, 18, 2).

To repeat my repetition of Alexander Schmemann’s marvelous articulation of this mystery in the first chapter of For the Life of the World,

He explains that God made the human creature first as a priest, which is placed in a garden of creation, depicted in Genesis with intentional parallels to the tabernacle and the temple. What does a priest do? A priest offers sacrifices. What is a sacrifice? A sacrifice is the offering to God of what the creature understands to be a gift from God (Aquinas argues in a very similar way, I should add). This offering is made as a way of acknowledging that God is not like me at all, but is in fact God — That from whom all things flow. Viewed in this way, sacrifice is the most fundamental, the most primordial expression of praise to the God of the universe.

As it is with so much of salvation history that culminates with Jesus, the fulfillment in Jesus takes up the past, but turns it inside out in all sorts of genre-bending, category-shattering ways. Jesus is the new Moses who fulfills utterly the law given on the mountain and then writes in his flesh on another mountain the new commandment that he gives his disciples. Jesus is the Passover Lamb who is offered by himself and of his own accord, who brings an end to sacrifice as both the priest and offering, and yet, behold, he lives, standing as though he was slain. To the extent that there is a Christian priesthood, it is the singular priesthood of Jesus Christ, who arose “in the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become a priest, not according to a legal requirement concerning bodily descent but by the power of an indestructible life” (Heb. 7:15-16).

As we journey toward the Great Feast this Lent, here are a number of the central kinds of sacrifice that are to mark the Christian disciple.

  1. Sorrow, and even tears, for sin. When Augustine describes his conversion, it culminates in his decision finally to no longer refuse to call his sin what it was, to longer make the easier choice to dull his senses with a whole array of distractions. He finally gives the compunction for sin that had been welling up inside him free reign. And when he does, he tells us, “my voice already choked with tears.” “I flung myself down somehow under a fig-tree and gave free reign to the tears that burst from my eyes like rivers, as an acceptable sacrifice to you” ( 8.12.28). Augustine’s very conversion exegetes the perplexing tension of Psalm 51: does God “take no delight in burnt-offerings” (51:17), or is he “pleased with the appointed sacrifices, with burnt-offerings and oblations” (51:19)? The answer is that when the material sacrifice is made by “a troubled spirit, a broken and a contrite heart,” not only will God not despise it. It will be a pleasing and acceptable sacrifice to God. Our sorrow for our sin is just such a sacrifice.
  2. Fasting: As we hear each Ash Wednesday, Jesus does not even try and convince us that we should fast: it’s simply assumed. But it is a fasting that is joined to good deeds that pleases God, hidden as much as we are able, done only for the God who sees in secret and is in secret.
  3. Alms-giving: As we also are reminded each Ash Wednesday, Jesus assumes that his followers will both fast and give alms. Gary Anderson has demonstrated quite movingly that almsgiving has long been understood as a pleasing sacrifice to God. It is a major theme of the book of Tobit and Sirach. One would not be chastised for noting the connection between Tobit 12:8 — “Prayer is good when accompanied by fasting, almsgiving, and righteousness…It is better to give alms than to treasure up gold” — and Jesus’ words in our Ash Wednesday Gospel:

When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. … Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matt. 6:3-4, 20-21)

  1. Prayer: Recall how the twin offerings of prayer and alms of Cornelius are described as having ascended to God and been received as an offering pleasing before him (Acts 10:4, 30-31). We are safest when our prayer arises directly from Scripture. Bonhoeffer explains:

So we learn to speak to God because God has spoken and speaks to us. In the language of the Father in heaven God’s children learn to speak with God. Repeating God’s own words, we begin to pray to God. … In Jesus’ mouth the human word becomes God’s Word. When we pray along with the prayer of Christ, God’s Word becomes again a human word. Thus all prayers of the Bible are such prayers, which we pray together with Jesus Christ, prayers in which Christ includes us, and through which Christ brings us before the face of God. Otherwise there are no true prayers, for only in and with Jesus Christ can we truly pray.

The prayer of our Lord and words of the Psalter are not just the beginning, but the journey itself.

  1. The Eucharist: Here, in the heart of the sacramental universe, everything that has been given is gathered up and returned back to God in an orientation of thanksgiving: bread and wine, as symbols of all of creation; our selves — our souls and bodies — as St. Paul enjoins us in Romans 12:1, as living and spiritual sacrifices; and finally, our verbal praise and thanksgiving.

All of these offerings work within a basic spiritual principal: Good works done for the right reason (namely, love) are pleasing to God and thus spiritually fruitful. In each of these examples, that which we give is that which we have first received: food; the material creation; the words of Holy Scripture; our very selves. What more could be given to us? God himself, which is what God makes of the material incarnation of our eucharistic sacrifice, such that he may dwell in us, and we in him. We offer in longing and in hope for the day when we shall see face to face, when the darkened glass will fade in the presence of the God who is light and the lamp that is the Lamb, when he who is our hope is finally all-in-all. Maranatha. Even so, come Lord Jesus.

With my tears I thee love; with my body I thee reverence. And with all my worldly goods I thee endow.

 

The Rev. Dr. Matthew S. C. Olver is assistant professor of liturgics and pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.

About The Author

Fr. Matthew S.C. Olver (PhD, Marquette) is assistant professor of liturgics and pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary, the director of St. Mary’s Chapel, and a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. Fr. Olver’s research interests include liturgical theology, the place of Scripture in early liturgical composition, ecclesiology, sacramental theology, and ecumenism.

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Stephen James Wilensky

As per usual, worthy of a second, slow read. But I couldn’t help thinking of another analogous definition for sacrifice, and as is customary with me, from sports, this time, baseball. When a batter, whose main job is to accomplish a base hit, gives himself up (for his team) by laying down a bunt easily making himself out and he advances a runner, he accomplishes a “sacrifice.”. Typically, this effort would “cost” the batter an out and decrease his batting average. However, the rules of baseball dictate that this effort, does not count against the batter as an out and… Read more »

Matthew S.C. Olver

Thanks for your comments, Steve! Yes, what you describe is a common way the term ‘sacrifice’ is used in contemporary English. Part of my point was that this way of using the term is foreign to how cultures that engage in religious sacrifice would speak. This is an instance where the great distance between a sacrificing culture has meant that was have to “fill in” the meaning, and find a way to make sense of the term. Just my two cents! Blessings.