Homily for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, 2012
Sacrifice. As we celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi this weekend, all of our scriptural readings center very directly on the religious practice sacrificing for God.
For most of us, I imagine the idea might seem very foreign and strange. Sprinkling people with the blood of bulls? Where did Moses come up with that idea?
If we look at ancient religions, and at the Jewish religion in particular, we can see that sacrifices were offered to God for at least three reasons.
The first was as expiation, or in an effort to restore justice when the community had sinned against God. We can see many examples of this throughout the Old Testament, that a scapegoat is offered to God to appease him for the sins of the many. And in our own day we embrace a certain sense of this in our judicial system – the idea that in order to restore justice, something must be taken away from the guilty party – in minor cases it is money, in more serious cases their freedom when we imprison them, and in some cases that Catholic teaching condemns, our government even seeks to restore justice by taking the life of the guilty party.
A second occasion when sacrifice was offered to God was to ratify a solemn agreement or covenant. This is the kind of sacrifice that we see Moses offering in our first reading today,
a sacrifice that confirms the seriousness of a commitment being made to God. In offering the sacrifice, the people are saying: if I break the commitment that I am making today, may what happened to those bulls happen to me. It is a sacrifice made to seal a bond. We might think of this same form of sacrifice in, for example, the practice of blood brothers, or think of the case of when bond is collected in order to hold someone to a court date.
And a third occasion was in praise of God – a sacrifice of praise. The Old Testament is full of accounts of massive displays of ritual sacrifice made after great military victories or other triumphs.
In gratitude for God’s favor, the desire was to show God their thankfulness by offering him the best of what they had. It is a natural impulse that we all have toward someone who has been good to us, we want to repay them, to show our gratitude by offering them something that is dear to us in return.
Each of these themes of sacrifice, or occasions of sacrifice to God were a part of the Jewish faith, and they prefigured the sacrifice of Christ that we celebrate at Mass. If you think of it, we hear all three sacrificial themes outlined in the prayers of the Mass each week, don’t we? That the Mass is a sacrifice of expiation, offered for the forgiveness of sins. That the Mass is a sacrifice that establishes a covenant and binds us into a communion with God and with one another. And that the Mass is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving that is offered to God on behalf of the whole Church.
But is something entirely new and different about the sacrifice of Christ that we offer at Mass compared to the sacrifices that prefigured his in the Old Testament. And this is because the sacrifices of the Old Covenant were incomplete and unfulfilled, they were meant to lead to Christ and were not adequate in themselves. The problem was this: everything that we might try to offer to God in sacrifice is already his. This problem gradually came to the attention of the Hebrew people.
The prophets, like Isaiah, began to make the dilemma clear: thus says the Lord: “What do I care for the multitude of your sacrifices? I have had enough of whole-burnt rams and fat of fatlings; In the blood of calves, lambs, and goats I find no pleasure. When you come to appear before me, who asks these things of you?” And we hear in Psalm 50 “For every animal of the forest is mine, beasts by the thousands on my mountains. I know every bird in the heights; whatever moves in the wild is mine. Were I hungry, I would not tell you, for mine is the world and all that fills it. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of he-goats?”
We have nothing of our own to offer. Everything that we have has been given to us by God. Even our most precious possession, our very life, is a gift from God. And so the sacrifices that we are capable of making to God on our own, without his aid, are incomplete and lacking. They are the equivalent of giving someone a gift that they have given to you in an attempt to thank them. You can imagine how that might work at home: after an argument you wish to make amends: here, please take this gift back that you gave me at Christmas – really I mean it, I want you to have it.
Without Christ, our sacrifices for God are empty gestures striving toward completion, longing to be joined to a real sacrifice, to a real gift that can be authentically given to God, a gift that is perfect. And the prophets realized that. They saw that they needed a Messiah, they were in search a true high priest who could offer a true and authentic sacrifice to God, one that would truly, and not symbolically, gain expiation for our sins, that would truly, and not symbolically, ratify a new covenant, and that would fittingly praise and thank God for his gifts.
And the high priest who offers the perfect sacrifice is Christ. Perfect because as God he can authentically offer the sacrifice of his life: because it is his in a way that our lives are not our own. And so Jesus tells us in the Gospel that the Father does not take his life from him, he gives his life freely and completely on the cross in a way that none of us could because we are not the origin of our own life, we are not God incarnate. But Jesus is the perfect sacrifice for us because he is not only God also human. As he offered his life on behalf of all humanity, he gave all of us the ability to participate in his one eternal offering of his life, in his one, eternal offering of expiation, communion, and praise.
That’s what happens at Mass – we are given the ability to participate in the one, eternal, offering of Christ that is the fulfillment and perfection of every sacrifice ever offered to God. As members of Christ’s body through baptism, we are joined in his sacrifice, and we are given the work of uniting our sacrifices to his sacrifice, insofar as we take up our crosses with him, dying to ourselves with Christ and offering everything we have to the Father with him.
So sacrifice is not an archaic or outmoded idea, a strange and foreign practice of ancient religions. It is at the heart of who we are and what we do as Christians. But the good news is that in Christ, we no longer bumble around struggling to offer things or animals or people in sacrifice to God that we hope will appease him and make him happy. No, we are sons and daughters of the true sacrifice, the one, true, authentic sacrifice offered by the our high priest, Jesus Christ, a sacrifice of expiation, of communion, and of praise and thanksgiving.