Sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving

For reasons I need not bore you with, this week I’ve been thinking very much about the purpose of liturgy.  What is it for?; why do we do it?; who should do it?  It’s a question not too far away from our reading from Hebrews, and one which goes to the heart of religion and worship – not just in the Christian tradition, but also in the Jewish and pagan religions.

It begins with the assumption that the Priest’s role is offering sacrifices – but recognising that the act of sacrifice is in itself flawed and imperfect.

It also put me in mind of a prayer that is used in some Roman Catholic and traditionalist catholic churches:  “pray my brothers and sisters that my sacrifice and yours be acceptable to almighty God” and its response “may the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands”.

I have to confess that this prayer makes me feel deeply uneasy.  It doesn’t express what I think (and hope) I’m doing as a priest at the altar.  It does, though, make me think more deeply about the nature of sacrifice and the relationship of us all as a worshipping community.

We do need, though, to put this in some sort of perspective.  Our practice today is very different to the sort of worship that the writer of the letter to the Hebrews would have known.  It’s a fair question to ask what that worship would have looked like, and even that’s not an easy question to answer.

On the cover of the service sheet is a picture of one of the most unusual monuments in Rome.  It is the reconstructed Ara Pacis Augusta, the Altar of Augustan Peace, which was reconstructed by Mussolini – one might wonder whether this was one of his better acts.

It does give us, though, an idea of what a temple and altar might look like.  The first thing to note is that this is not an enclosed building – it’s open to the sky.  In fact, the word Temple has its root in similar words to sky.  Originally, at least in Roman religion, a templum was a portion of the sky which was agreed by the augurs as the place they would look for signs.  That could be a flock of birds, a cloud formation or even a flash of lightning.  These were the signs from the Gods that were then interpreted by the augurs.

Whether the temple though was Greek, Roman or Jewish, sacrifice was at the very heart of what happened.  The sacrifice might be of grain, or wine or oil (the oblation) which was poured out as a libation.  A thanksgiving for God’s generosity.

Sacrifce was the consummation of the pact or covenant between (a) God and his people.  That, again, is true whether we are talking about Greek, Roman or Jewish religion.  Prayers were offered in anticipation of God’s good will, which, once received, triggered the sacrifice.  The sacrifice was in thanksgiving for – or in appeasement of - God’s mercy or generosity. 

One might think of it as a bargain between humans and God(s) – if you do this for me, I will do this for you.  The most powerful God(s) were therefore those who did more for their followers, and thus had more sacrifices offered.  The scale of offering, sacrifice and thanksgiving was well set out – whether it be grain, wine, goat, bull etc – and social standing was maintained and enforced by the sacrifice one could offer – hence, at the Presentation in the Temple – the feast celebrated at Candlemas, Joseph and Mary display their humble status and lack of wealth with their offering of two turtle doves.

This ancient understanding of sacrifice isn’t, to my mind, what we’re doing today.  On the whole we haven’t entered a plea bargain with God.  Although, it’s interesting to reflect on those notices one sometimes sees in the personal columns where whichever saint (often Mary or Jude or Anthony) is publicly thanked for prayers answered.  Is this a hang over of a plea-bargain religion?  If you answer my prayers, I’ll do something for you?  I’m not convinced either way, but it is good to ponder.

So then, what is the nature of our sacrifice?  It is clearly one of praise and thanksgiving rather than an offering of a sacrificial victim.

We do have offerings of bread and wine, symbolically brought up, which are the focal point of the Eucharistic prayer, and which are then shared in the Eucharistic feast.  There are very strong oblation, libation and sacrificial elements here, which have echoes deep in our psyches and link us to practices of people, tribes and races long gone.

There are also clear memorial elements - “do this in remembrance of me” are the words of consecration.  This memorial element is central to our prayer of praise and thanksgiving, and it recognises the timelessness of God – in that it is both the first and the last time that it is being said, and it’s a prayer of active memoria, not just past memory.  It emphasises the living Christ, whom we remember, and who is, and was, and is to come.

Yes, it’s complicated, yes its difficult, but it does make sense.

Is this, though, down to the priest?  There are some who would say yes – the priest is the intermediary between God and his people.  Others would say that the priest isn’t necessary in this at all, as God has a personal relationship with each one of us, and we with him.  For me, and I stress this is a personal view, the priest is a person who has been called out of God’s people, to work with them and lead them in worship.  However, the priest is just as much a member of the laos – God’s people – as everyone else, and so they act with, through, and by the whole of the congregation, calling upon the Grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit to consecrate the bread and wine..  You’ll notice that the responses in our service are, for the most part, in the plural.  This is something we do together, we are all active participants in this, not just interested onlookers.  The act of worship is not about what the priest does for the congregation and God, but how we all participate as God’s people.  To go back to that prayer I mentioned at the beginning, this is not a sacrifice performed at my hands, for we all do this together.  Neither is it for our good or the good of the Church, but for the praise and glory of God. 

The final element in ancient religion was that after the sacrifice, a meal was taken together.  This meal formed part of the sacred ritual.  We have strong echoes of this in the distribution of communion, and receiving the Sacrament.  This is the culmination of our worship, in which we participate, through the mystery of the consecration, and take into ourselves an outward sign of God’s inward grace.

The liturgy, therefore, is not something done to or for the congregation, but is done with us all.  Each one of us has an important part to play in our worship, for it is collective and individual at the same time. 

It’s very encouraging to be in churches and congregations where the responses are said with feeling and by the whole congregation (sadly not always true in every church).  The taking part in this act of prayer, praise and thanksgiving, doing this as the whole of God’s people, for the whole community and the whole of creation.  We might not always understand the mystery, but it’s important to take part.  Our response to God’s grace is what we’re called to do – thank you for being part of this with me in the mystery that is our worship.