When we think of the word “sacrifice,” we might think of it as a form of delayed gratification, where we deprive ourselves of something we want now for the sake of enjoying a better thing later on. We might also think of the sacrifices that parents make for their children, or that members of the military make for the protection of our country. But sacrifice is most properly a religious term, a ritual offering made to a deity in atonement for sin. In the Old Testament, the priests literally would slaughter animals, pour out their blood on the altar, and burn the carcass on a fire built on the altar, from which the smoke would rise up to heaven. The sacrifice would end with the priest sharing a festive meal with those who had come to have the sacrifice offered, using some of the leftover meat.
The Protestant theologian Peter Leithart describes the ritual offering as the way the worshiper drew near to the Lord. The worshiper joins the Lord in heaven vicariously through the animal, who is sacrificed and transformed into smoke, thus ascending into the presence of God. He illustrates this further by pointing to the story of Adam and Eve. Prior to their rebellion against the Lord, our first parents enjoyed being in the presence of the Lord in the Garden of Eden. With their sin, they are expelled from the garden, which is guarded by angels called “Cherubim,” who are armed with flaming swords (Gen 3:24). Leithart says that if Adam, desiring to draw close to the Lord again, were to try to re-enter Eden, he would have been cut to pieces by the swords of the angels. Thus, he and his descendants would send animals in their place through ritual sacrifice. Sacrifice becomes the means of re-entry into Paradise through death (slaughter of the animal) and transfiguration (the burning of the animal that changes it into smoke). With all of the animals and the blood and the fire and the smoke, we might think that the Temple worship is somehow more real than the sacrifice that we enter into at the Mass. The reverse, however, is true. No matter how many animals the people sacrificed in the Old Testament, none of them could take away sin. The one sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, however, does take away sin. It is that perfect sacrifice, the sacrifice that is the fulfillment of all those other forms of sacrifice, that we participate in most fully at Mass.
As a Protestant theologian, Leithart obviously doesn’t make this connection with the Mass. Instead, he speaks of sacred music and singing as the way in which Christian faithful offer up sacrifice, entering into the heavenly sanctuary through their baptismal union with Christ, joining the joyful assembly of the angels in their eternal worship of the Lord. As Catholics, we participate in a more visceral way. By our baptism, we are united to Christ, who offers Himself as the perfect sacrifice so as to reconcile God and humanity in Himself. In the Mass, the congregation is united in the offering through the priest who stands in the place of Christ – as Christ – and makes present again Christ’s sacrificial gift of Himself and us to the Father, under the appearance of bread and wine. This offering is not just spiritual, but bodily. The Eucharist allows us to be united with God in the flesh, so that Christ’s sacrifice in the flesh becomes ours. At Mass, the veil of Paradise is pierced, and we are able to enter into the eternal worship and praise that Christ – through His Passion, death, and resurrection – offers to the Father. The sacrifice of Christ is THE sacrifice. And as members of the Church, we participate in it through the liturgical prayer of the Mass.