What is an acceptable sacrifice to God? Do we really have to take the heifer three years old, the female goat three years old, and the ram three years old and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other, remembering not to cut the turtledove and the young pigeon? Is giving up chocolate for Lent an acceptable sacrifice? Is taking on the time commitment of a new ministry during Lent an acceptable sacrifice? Do we even need to offer an acceptable sacrifice in order to gain God's favor? Do we have any idea what an acceptable sacrifice might be?
Perhaps we must start with the word "sacrifice." Often that word seems harsh or gruesome. How "Old Testament" can the terrible idea of killing innocent animals appear to be in order to please God. Yet our simple "New Testament" Lenten practice of giving up something such as chocolate seems hardly worth it when compared to what Jesus Christ gave up when he died on the cross. Even taking on a new ministry in Lent means giving up, sacrificing time, for something else.
Does the word "sacrifice" need to be harsh or gruesome? In the Holy Eucharist we say "Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us; Therefore let us keep the feast." Is that a harsh or gruesome statement? Or is it one of celebration and joy?
If we come to understand, as the early Christians did, that the word "sacrifice" means "holy action" then we are released from "harsh and gruesome" into "celebration and joy." We are not stuck in Good Friday but move to the celebration and joy of the third day when Jesus rose from the dead. Sacrifice, then, is "doing what is holy."
It was a "holy action" in the first Passover by which the blood of a lamb protected the first born of the Jews preparing to escape the bondage of Pharaoh. Christ, by his blood shed on the cross, is our Passover, the "holy action" that offers us escape from a world where minds are set on earthly things such as comfort and success. If we do not recognize this "holy action" how can we keep the peace, a sharing of Shalom. If we ignore God's "holy action" in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we will miss out on the fullness of all that God has to offer, the deeper meaning of the word "shalom," when we cry out "let us keep the peace."
If sacrifice is a "holy action" that opens our eyes to "shalom," the fullness of all that God has to offer, what then, is an "acceptable sacrifice?" Is there an acceptable holy action we can perform that will gain for us God's favor? Or, are we called to be willing participants in the ongoing acceptable holy action, the ongoing acceptable sacrifice, that began with Jesus dying on the cross? Ongoing is the key word. Ongoing, as in continuing. God's favor is assured in Jesus Christ. The acceptable sacrifice, the acceptable holy action, is ongoing. We are invited to participate in this ongoing acceptable holy action, this ongoing acceptable sacrifice, with a sense of celebration and joy because we know that new life, resurrection, is the inevitable outcome. We know that the third day is shalom, the fullness of all that God has to offer. Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, assures us that we need do nothing to gain God's favor because we already have it.
But Lent is a period that reminds us there is something we can do in order to fully share the love found in the ongoing acceptable holy action, the ongoing acceptable sacrifice of Jesus Christ. One of the prefaces for the Eucharistic prayer offers guidance: "You bid your faithful people cleanse their hearts, and prepare with joy for the Paschal feast; that, fervent in prayer and in works of mercy, and renewed by your Word and Sacraments, they may come to the fullness of grace which you have prepared for those who love you."
A way to be fervent in prayer during Lent can be found in the Liturgy of Ash Wednesday that includes the words of Psalm 51, "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me." The right spirit is what lifts us to see things heavenly and not simply set our minds on earthly things. Remember, as Paul points out, earthly things promote their god as the belly which is empty, because all that is in that belly is the illusion of comfort and success. Our cry in Psalm 51 is to be delivered from such death because our faith tells us that "a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise."
The Litany of Penitence that follows Psalm 51 begins on page 267 in the Book of Common Prayer. Taking the words of this litany into our hearts is a way to repent and return to the Lord as we have promised in The Baptismal Covenant. These words help us re-enter the ongoing acceptable holy action, the ongoing acceptable sacrifice that began with Jesus dying on the cross. We cry, "Have mercy on us, Lord," when we accept that "We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven." We confess such faults as "Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work." We pray, "Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done: for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty." And we end the litany with hope by saying, "By the cross and passion of your Son our Lord, Bring us with all your saints to the joy of his resurrection." The complete Litany of Penitence is rich and full: a worthy companion to a lenten discipline that might include giving up chocolate or taking on the time commitment that a new ministry demands.
Perhaps the best way to more fully appreciate what it means to be part of the ongoing acceptable holy action, the ongoing acceptable sacrifice that began with Jesus dying on the cross, is to accept God's call found in these beautiful words from a collect for Morning Prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name."
The Spirit that we cry out to be clothed in is the same Spirit found in Psalm 51. The broken and contrite heart that is not despised by God is the heart that has been lured by the illusion promised in comfort and success that ends in an empty belly. When we reach out our hands in love, to bring those who do not know God to the knowledge and love of God, we are participating in the ongoing acceptable sacrifice that began with Jesus dying on the cross. When we participate in this ongoing acceptable holy action that delivers shalom, the fullness of all God has to offer, we prepare with joy for the Paschal Feast and all that it means in this life and the next.