The Stepping Stone of Sacrifice

Very few films capture horror like Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto. Set in the decaying Mayan civilization, we see Mayan warriors raiding neighboring villages to kidnap victims and march them back to their city to be eviscerated and decapitated as offerings to their god.

The scenes of savage ritual are a stark reminder that from the beginning of history, sacrifice has been a core element of religion. The archeologists and anthropologists tell us that in virtually every primitive society, sacrifice of some kind was practiced.

The Hebrew religion rose above the ancient Near East cults inasmuch as they eschewed the human sacrifices to Moloch and Baal, substituting animals. Furthermore, their system of sacrifice was linked to a more sophisticated understanding of religion. Sacrifice for the Hebrews was not a simple action of appeasing a capricious god. Instead the animals were offered up for reconciliation, forgiveness and peace.

Behold the Lamb

As Christian believers we take it for granted that this sacrificial system has been superseded by the Christian religion. Nevertheless we continue to use language of sacrifice when we say, “Jesus died to save you from your sin” or “behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

A typical modern person with little or no religious education could be excused for being mystified by such language. He might well ask, “Pardon me, but what do you mean by telling me I need to get saved and ‘Jesus died to save me from my sins’? How does the execution of a revolutionary two thousand years ago in Palestine take away the naughty things I’ve done? Help me with this.”

Should he venture into a Catholic mass he would hear the priest proclaim, “Behold the Lamb of God” and mumble about “this oblation, this victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim.” Would it be out of order for this millennial  man to ask, “Excuse me, but you’retalking about blood sacrifice right? We’re modern people. We don’t do that sort of thing any more. And if I am not mistaken you’re talking about human sacrifice are you not? Come now, we’re not Aztecs or members of that heart plucking Thugee sect they terrified us with in the second Indiana Jones film.”

How does a Christian respond? How do we make sense of a stone age religion for space age people? The very cornerstone of the faith—the sacrifice of Christ has become a stumbling block rather than a stepping stone. How does one counter such obvious and valid questions?

Grandma’s Ecclesiastical Attic

The answer of the modernists has been simple. The mythological elements of religion were barbaric and superstitious. In the late nineteenth century Oxford scholar of comparative religion, Max Muller called myth “a disease of language” and in the next generation the New Testament scholar Rudolph Bultmann devised the scheme to “dy-mythologize” the New Testament.

Appeasing sky gods with blood sacrifices was part of the ancient mythological system of primitive religion. Along with miracle stories, any idea of a sacrificial system in religion was to be relegated to grandma’s ecclesiastical attic. Such savage and unscientific notions were out of date. Myth and ceremonial sacrifice were either ignored completely or renovated into pious fables or religious symbols.

“After all”, the de-mythologizers taught, “Modern people couldn’t accept a miracle man who walked on water and fed five thousand with a little boy’s lunch. We now know that walking on water is no more than a story about faith and the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand? Well the real miracle was that everyone shared with one another!”

The idea of sacrifice was also re-interpreted to be no more than a superficial religious symbol. “What all that bloodletting and gore and burning carcasses on the altar was really about was being a nicer, kinder person and giving up a bit more of your time, talent and treasure to help the poor and make the world a better place.”

The Mask of Modernism

In emptying Christianity of the supernatural, modern theologians have not only watered down the wine, they have presented as religion something which is not religion at all. Because they were embarrassed by sacrifice, myth and the miraculous they substituted for religion the ritual  of respectable good works. Sacrificing priests may have eviscerated their victims. Modern theologians eviscerated religion itself.

From the beginning of time religion was not about being nice respectable people. It was about a terrifying encounter with the supernatural. Religion, by its very nature, was commerce with the other side, a connection with the greater powers and with all that was transcendent, cosmic, everlasting and divine. It was a meeting between mortals and immortality.

The modernists turned up their nose at such primitive concepts, preferring to keep Christian morality and culture without all that messy supernatural nonsense. They threw out the baby but kept the bathwater. But without the supernatural religion is not religion at all. It is merely a sappy therapy, a vague philosophy and a sentimental plan for social action.

The Return of the Strange Gods

This is why, with the downturn of mainstream Protestantism we have seen an upturn of interest in New Age spirituality and the occult. People understand that religion is about an encounter with the invisible realm and if their church isn’t delivering they’ll look elsewhere.

This hunger for real religion also accounts for the popularity of fantasy literature and film. The human imagination needs myth to nurture its quest for meaning. Superhero movies, fantasy literature and video games feed the desire for the mystical and mythical meaning.

This is why I believe the clue to evangelization in our present culture lies not in the denial of myth and sacrifice, but in a renewal of these ancient, strange aspects of religion. Instead of reading the sacred texts of Christianity only as historical documents we should also be gathering from them the powerful mythic meanings. The gospel is myth, as C.S.Lewis observed, “but a myth that really happened.”

Along with a renewal of story, saga and the mythic elements of religion, I believe a renewed appreciation of sacrifice is vital.

René Girard and the Scapegoat

Starting from his work in literary criticism, the French thinker René Girard explored the disturbing scapegoating mechanism within human culture. He showed how we project the evil lurking in our own hearts onto others, and how, when this happens at the tribal level, the mob murders the selected victim believing that by eliminating the cause of the problem they have solved their problem.

The corporate murder causes a kind of euphoria in the tribe and they celebrate with a feast. When another problem arises the members of the tribe remember what seemed to be a cure and seek another victim. Eventually this evolves into ritual murder and the blessing that comes from having solved the problem indicates that the gods themselves are happy with this action. Thus a religion centered around ritual sacrifice develops and the endless round of human sacrifice (and by extension substitutionary animal sacrifice) is perpetuated.

That we see scapegoating going all around us in modern society brings alive this sick dynamic. Whether it is lynchings and police murders of African Americans or the violent reactions of protest and rioting—the same projection and tribal violence illustrate Girard’s explanation. That this sick dynamic occurs on the individual, corporate, national and international level hammers home its grim reality.

Rather than sacrifice being primitive and outmoded, scapegoating is a vital, intriguing and contemporary concept.  As such it is a gut wrenching connecting point between human behavior, contemporary society and a humanity as ancient as Eden, and it suddenly makes sense of that symbol at the center of Christianity—the crucifix.

We Preach Christ Crucified

It is no coincidence that part of the modernist emasculation of Christianity has included a re-interpretation and denigration of the cross of Christ. The central action of redemption has been diluted to be no more than an act of courageous martyrdom or a symbol of self giving love. 

But it is more than that. Properly understood, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ explains the sin of the world—that sick sacrificial system of societal violence. Christ’s crucifixion not only exposes the scapegoating system for what it is, but it also defeats that system from the inside out. In a mystical transaction, Jesus Christ accepts the blame, willingly takes on the role of scapegoat—the lamb and because he rises again, smothers the “sin of the world” with an embrace.

This is why St Paul said, “We preach Christ crucified” and “I am resolved to know nothing but the cross of Christ.” This is the image and the message which attracts and has the power to answer the modern skeptic’s excellent questions.

Furthermore, it is this cosmic sacrifice which is perpetually alive and relevant in the Catholic Mass. How strange that in this modern world there is still one global religion that practices sacrifice. It is Catholicism, for at every Mass the priest re-presents the once for all sacrifice of the cross and applies it to the needs of today. 

This is why understanding the Mass as sacrifice, rather than a family meal, is so important, and why the sacrifice should be offered with full ceremony, ancient ritual and appropriate reverence…not only because it is right and just, but also because it opens the door to true religion.

Photo by Francesco Alberti on Unsplash

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Brought up as an Evangelical in the USA, Fr. Dwight Longenecker earned a degree in Speech and English before studying theology at Oxford University. He served as a minister in the Church of England, and in 1995 was received into the Catholic Church with his wife and family. The author of over twenty books on Catholic faith and culture including his most recent title, Immortal Combat, Fr Longenecker is also an award winning blogger, podcaster and journalist. He is pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Ordained as a Catholic priest under the Pastoral Provision for married former Protestant ministers, Fr Longenecker and his wife Alison have four grown up children.

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