So Paul, standing in the middle of the Are-op′agus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To an unknown god…’ (Acts 17:22-23).
Across the world, and found on the most obscure and abandoned islands there are “altars.” In places dissimilar both by creed and code, these altars (whether in Japan, Hawaii, or across Europe and Asia) testify to a common yearning: a yearning for worship.
They also testify to the enduring connection between worship and sacrifice, since altars are the normative place for sacrifice. But why sacrifice? And why the connection with worship?
To an Unknown God
Place yourself in the shoes of the ancient islander. You eventually come to know (sooner or later) some deep truths. The first, perhaps, is that life is a gift. For how could one deserve to exist?
Next, as a natural consequence, you get the feeling that the only good explanation for one’s existence is something Divine. Then lastly, as a conclusion, you realize that this God-given gift justly merits a response: a “thank you.”
But how do you say “thank you” to Someone whom you have never “seen” nor will ever “run into?” Gratitude is expressed not only in words but also in deeds; but how do you give back to the One in all things; yet, not to be “found” among any of them?
With a litany of questions before us, let us start off with the relationship between sacrifice and worship. Think of it like this: when someone wants to give a gift to another, two things are required: the “delivery” of the gift, as well as the resulting loss of the gift to the giver.
Let us begin with the first: the question of delivery. How does one hand over a gift to Someone without hands? Or place a gift somewhere for One who isn’t constrained to a place? You build an altar. Then, you designate that altar as the place to offer one’s gift—a place to deliver a “thank you” to God.
The other aspect of gift giving is the loss of the gift to the giver. Among material things, to bestow a gift means at the same time to lose it. For example, if you give 10 dollars to a friend, at the same time you lose 10 dollars. If you lend your car to a neighbor, you lose (at least for a time) the ability to drive it. The voluntary loss of one’s goods for the sake of something or someone else, is typically what we mean when we use the word sacrifice. Hence, sacrifice is merely gift giving considered on the part of the giver.
With all this in mind, our islander places his sacrifice on his designated altar, and since he doesn’t expect the Divine to come “pick it up,” what does he do? He ignites it. In turning his gift to ashes, he watches it “travel” up to the Divine, and fulfills both the part of gift-giving which entails loss, as well as the aspect which denotes delivery.
However, and possibly quite swiftly, our islander discovers that this burnt offering of fruit or beasts falls dreadfully short of a Divine-worthy “thank you.”
It falls short, firstly, on the part of the one worshiping. Men are imperfect at the least, and evil at the most; and impurity doesn’t make one fit to stand before Goodness Itself.
On the other hand, the offering falls short on the part of the gift itself. What could man possibly give that sufficiently repays (or thanks) the Divine Majesty for one’s existence, and not only his existence but all the other gifts included with it (such as the world around him)?
Thus, our islander’s primitive worship seems inevitably consigned to miss the mark. Justice demands that he say “thank you” to His Maker, and in a proper way, but unfortunately such a thing seems nowhere to be found. Our islanders’ difficulties are daunting. And more than that, they are not merely hypothetical, they are historical.
Let us turn then to history, and see how this pursuit of a proper “thank you” played out in time, and show that its solution and fulfillment are found in the crowning act of worship and sacrifice, that is εὐχαριστία (eucharistia, “thanksgiving”), or the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Historically speaking, the awareness of inadequate worship, and its resultant desperation, led to extremes in various ways; most conspicuously on the part of the gift or the sacrifice itself.
On the one hand, despair of a properly excellent gift, led men to offer the most excellent of earthly things—namely, other people. Human sacrifice, seen in all its grotesqueness, is recorded by Hernan Cortes in his account of the Aztecs:
Each day before beginning any sort of work they burn incense in these temples and sometimes sacrifice their own persons, some cutting their tongues, others their ears, while there are some who stab their bodies with knives. All the blood which flows from them they offer to those idols…(Letters from Mexico, 1).
On the other side of the Atlantic, despair of an adequately pure gift, led men to offer that which was most innocent. As an example, here is the account of Carthage, North Africa:
In the New Town, which the Romans called Carthage, as in the parent cities of Phoenicia, the god who got things done bore the name of Moloch…Moloch was not a myth; or at any rate his meal was not a myth. These highly civilized people really met together to invoke the blessing of heaven on their empire by throwing hundreds of their infants into a large furnace. (Everlasting Man, chpt. 7).
It’s no wonder that the Romans, as they looked across the water at Carthage, cried out: Carthago delenda est (Carthage must be destroyed). Yet, ancient Rome, was itself, by no means blameless.
Besides being appalling, the worship evidenced in the Americas and North Africa, are also examples of replacing one’s worship with someone else. Joseph Ratzinger puts it this way:
…worship with replacements turns out to be a replacement for worship. Somehow the real thing is missing (Spirit of the Liturgy, chpt. 3).
It’s ultimately a cop-out. The “thank you” I have to give cannot be someone else’s. It must be my very own. At the same time, it also cannot be one of self-destruction. For, no intelligent Maker makes things merely for the sake of them being unmade. Ancient Israel knew this very well and uncompromisingly proclaimed it, as we see in the book of Wisdom:
Do not invite death by the error of your life, nor bring on destruction by the works of your hands; because God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living (Wis. 1:12-13).
Therefore, having considered the motive for worship, its relationship with sacrifice, and the awfulness of its perversions, we now turn toward its solution and proper fulfillment.
O Lord, I am thy servant; I am thy servant, the son of thy handmaid. Thou hast loosed my bonds. I will offer to thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the Lord (Ps. 116:16-17) (emphasis added).
Based on what has been said, a few things are clear: The first, is that justice demands that man, in gratitude, give back for the gift of his existence. Second, such a “thank you” entails sacrifice, since among material things (and man is material, although not exclusively), to give a gift is at the same time to lose it. Third, man’s sacrifice must truly be his own sacrifice (in order to satisfy his own debt of gratitude before God). Then lastly, and unfortunately, neither man’s gift nor himself as giver are fit for Divine-worthy worship.
These are our concerns and questions, but what is the answer? God himself provides the answer.
At the Catholic Mass, God (in the priest) offers to God (in all things) God Himself (in the Eucharist). This is the one sacrifice worthy of God: God. And this sacrifice (as the true representation of Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary) is not only Jesus’ sacrifice but also our own; for by baptism we “are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
Here, we finally find a proper “thank you” to God, worthy of God because it is given by God Himself. In the words of the Mass,
It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God.
For, although you have no need of our praise, yet our thanksgiving is itself your gift, since our praises add nothing to your greatness but profit us for salvation through Christ our Lord.
And so, in company with the choirs of Angels, we praise you, and with joy we proclaim…(The Roman Missal of the Catholic Church).
Here we find worthy worship. Here we find a worthy “thank you.” Here we find Eucharistia.
This reflection is inspired by, and partly indebted to Joseph Ratzinger’s, “Spirit of the Liturgy.”