Thirty-Third in a Series on Catholic Morality
Fr. John H. Stapleton
We Catholics contend - and our contention is based on a law of nature that we glean from the history of man - that sacrifice is the soul of religion, that there never was a universally and permanently accepted religion - and that there cannot be any such religion - without an altar, a victim, a priest, and a sacrifice. We claim that reason and experience would bear us out in this contention, even without the example and teaching and express commands of Jesus Christ, who, in founding a new and the only true religion, Himself offered sacrifice and left a sacrifice to be perpetually offered in His religion; and that sacrifice constitutes the high worship we owe to the Creator.
It is our conviction that, when man came into the presence of the Almighty, his first impulse was to speak to Him, and his first word was an act of adoration. But human language is a feeble medium of communication with the Almighty. Man talks to man. To talk with God, he sought out another language; and, as in the case of Adam's sons, he discovered in sacrifice a better and stronger mode of expressing his religious feelings. He therefore offered sacrifice, and sacrifice became the language of man in his relations with the Deity.
In its simplest definition, sacrifice is the offering to God of a victim, by one authorized for that task. It supposes essentially the destruction of the victim; and the act is an eloquent acknowledgment, in language that is as plain as it possibly can be made, that God is the supreme Lord of life and death, that all things that exist come from Him, and revert to Him as to their natural end.
The philosophy of sacrifice is that man, in some manner or other, had incurred the wrath of the Almighty. The pagan could not tell in just what his offense consisted; but there is nothing plainer than the fact that he considered himself under the ban of God's displeasure, and that sin had something to do with it; and he feared the Deity accordingly. We know that original sin was the curse under which he labored.
Whatever the offense was, it was in the flesh, the result of weakness rather than malice. There was something in his nature that inclined to evil and was responsible for sin. The better part tried to serve, but the inferior man revolted. Flesh, therefore, was wicked and sinful; and since all offense must be atoned for, the flesh should pay the penalty of evil. The wrath of God could be appeased, and sacrifice was the thing that could do it.
Another thing most remarkable among those who worshiped by sacrifice in the early times, is that they believed firmly in the reversibility of merit, that is, that the innocent could atone for the wicked. Somehow, they acquired the notion that stainless victims were more agreeable to God than others. God sanctioned this belief among the Jews, and most strikingly on the hill of Calvary.
This being the case, man being guilty and not having the right to inflict the supreme penalty upon himself, the natural thing to do was to substitute a victim for himself, to put the flesh of another in the place of his own and to visit upon it the punishment that was due to himself. And he offered to God this vicarious atonement. His action spoke in this wise:
My God, I am a sinner and deserve Thy wrath. But look upon this victim as though it were myself. My sins and offenses I lay upon its shoulders, this knife shall be the bolt of Thy vengeance, and it shall make atonement in blood.
This is the language of sacrifice. As we have said, it supposes the necessity of atonement and belief in the reversibility of merit.
Now, if we find in history, as we certainly do find, that all peoples offered sacrifice of this kind, we do not think we would be far from the truth if we deduced therefrom a law of nature; and if it is a law of nature, it is a law of God. If there is no religion of antiquity that did not offer sacrifice, then it would seem that the Almighty had traced a path along which man naturally trod and which his natural instinct showed him.
We believe in the axiom of St. Augustine: securus judicet orbis terrarum, "a universally accepted judgment can be safely followed." Especially do we feel secure with the history of the chosen people of God before us with its sacrifice ordained by the law; with the sanction of Christ's sacrifice in our mind, and the practice of the divinely inspired Church which makes sacrifice the soul of her worship.
The victim we have is Jesus Christ Himself, and none other than He. He gave us His flesh and blood to consume, with the command to consume. Our sacrifice, therefore, consists in the offering up of this Victim to God and the consuming of it. Upon the Victim of the altar, as upon the Victim of the Cross, we lay our sins and offenses, and, in one case as in the other, the sacred blood, in God's eyes, washes our iniquity away.
Of course, it requires faith to believe, but religion is nothing if it is not whole and entire a matter of faith. The less faith you have, the more you try to simplify matters. Waning faith began by eliminating authority and sacrifice and the unwritten word. Now the written word is going the same way. Pretty soon we shall hear of the Decalogue's being subjected to this same eliminating process. After all, when one gets started in that direction, what reason is there that he should ever stop!