by Father Mike Stubbs
It is a terrifying scene. The sacrificial victim struggles in vain against the ropes that bind him to the altar, as the priest lowers the knife to split open his chest. Chanting a hymn to the fierce war god, the priest holds up high the still-beating heart.
Human sacrifice once characterized many of the pre-Colombian religions of the New World. For example, when the Aztecs dedicated the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan in Mexico City in 1487, they reportedly sacrificed 80,400 persons. The streets ran with blood. It took 20 days, with four altars in constant operation day and night.
The Hebrew religion of the Old Testament repudiated human sacrifice as contrary to God’s wishes, even though it was a common practice among neighboring peoples. At the same time, worship in the temple of Jerusalem included animal sacrifice. Bulls, goats, sheep and turtledoves were offered on the altar. This continued through the time of Jesus, up until the temple was destroyed, in the year 70.
In making a sacrifice, the victim’s throat was slit and its blood poured around the altar, because blood stood for life. In a sense, the real sacrifice involved not the animal itself but, rather, its life.
Against this backdrop, the words of St. Paul in Sunday’s second reading take on additional significance: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice” (Rom 12:1).
The word “living” puts a different twist upon the usual experience of sacrifice as it was practiced during the time of St. Paul. The sacrificial victim was thoroughly dead when it was burnt on the altar. In contrast, the victim in the sacrifice that St. Paul proposes continues to live on. It is not killed.
In other words, St. Paul is asking that Christians live in such a way that their lives constitute a sacrifice, “holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.” By following the teachings of Christ, by embracing his cross, Christians will share in his sacrifice on that cross, the sacrifice that gives life to the world.
It is in living according to these words of St. Paul that Christians fulfill their role as priests. After all, a priest is one who offers sacrifice. And elsewhere, the New Testament declares that we are a priestly people: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pt 2:9).
We live out our calling as priests, not primarily by reciting prayers or conducting religious services, but by acting with truth and justice. Our worship takes place in the course of our daily lives — not in some temple removed from mundane affairs, but in the midst of the world and its concerns. By our lives, we sanctify the world.