Friday, March 21, 2008

An Acceptable Sacrifice

We celebrate today the greatest sacrifice ever made, a sacrifice that dwarfs our feeble attempts at imitation. With this in mind, we must come to an understanding of what it means to offer an acceptable sacrifice to the Lord. In other words, are our sacrifices offered in union with and in the same spirit with which the Christ offered His, or are they offered in the same spirit as Cain’s?

Genesis 4:1-16 recounts a story that reveals the destructive nature of the darkness hid within our hearts. Two brothers offer sacrifices to God. One is accepted while the other is not. But why? A close reading reveals a possible reason for the denial of Cain’s sacrifice:

“The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted?’” (Genesis 4:6-7)

Cain’s immediate response to God’s rejection of his sacrifice was not one of humility as one might expect of a person in such a position. It was anger. Rather than seeking out the proper way to please God, Cain digs his heels deeper into pride and presumably rationalization of his unacceptable sacrifice. God’s questioning is meant not only to provide an invitation for self-examination, but also for Cain to understand what it is God is actually seeking from him. God is not so much concerned with the sacrifice per se evidenced by the fact that sacrifice is not once mentioned when God speaks to Cain. He is concerned with the very heart of Cain, for the heart is what determines the acceptability of one’s sacrifice, not the other way around. The words, “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” indicate something deeper than the mere rejection of a sacrifice, for God is speaking not of the acceptance of sacrifice, but about the acceptance of Cain himself. In other words, the sacrifice serves its purpose when the heart is pure. A heart polluted by envy and anger is a heart that pollutes. Cain’s sacrifice was polluted by his self-love and vanity, thus making it unacceptable in God’s eyes. Mother Teresa taught us that God calls us to do small things with great love as it is the great love that determines the greatness of the act. Cain, unfortunately, allows his vanity and self-love to devolve further into unjustified anger.

The instruction from God to Cain to do well went unappreciated and unheeded. Though God called out to Cain, pointing him in the direction of perfection, Cain sought his own way and offered an even more abominable sacrifice, the life of his own brother.

We’ve all got a bit of Cain in us. Some more than others, but we’ve all got it. I’m not speaking of fratricide. I’m speaking of the profound lack of insight that characterizes our relationships with the Almighty. We lack insight as to what God truly wants of us, and we tend towards a false belief in the sufficiency of offering Him our own works apart from our very selves, when in reality, all He really wants from us is a pure and humble heart in submission to His will expressed through physical sacrifices.

The Psalmist makes the above thought clear when he writes: “Sacrifice and offering you do not desire; but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. Then I said, ‘Behold, I come; in the roll of the book it is written of me; I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.’”

The Psalmist reveals to us that God’s desire is man himself, not his bull, ram, or cereal offering. The offering is to be an expression of the man, taking on value by virtue of the purity of his heart and delight in God’s will.

In stark contrast to Cain’s offering is the offering of Christ Who offered His purity and His entire being which He made completely and absolutely in union with God’s will.

“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” (Hebrews 5:7-9)

St. Paul teaches us that the suffering of Christ was characterized by godly fear, supplication, and obedience. Because of this, he was made perfect, and thus, He Himself was made an acceptable sacrifice to the Father. As a sort of correction of Cain’s abominable sacrifice that led to his brother’s death, Christ offers His own life to save the lives of His bothers.

During this Triduum and throughout the Easter season, let us continue to examine the acceptability of our own sacrifices, discerning if we have offered ourselves to Him or a pathetic substitute.

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