Meaning of sacrifice

While anyone can look up a definition of the word ‘sacrifice,’ what does the word mean to you? How would you classify it; does it have a connotation that is positive, negative, or neutral? Have you ever given any thought to the word? 

In ancient times, sacrifice was a habitual act. Various religions used it as a way to communicate with their deity. For the Israelites, it was a sacrifice of grains, first fruits, and livestock. Other religions demanded infants and children. These were times when most struggled to get enough to keep them and their family going throughout the year. To give up any food, especially the best, took courage and faith. We will never be able to begin to understand what it took for parents to give up their children in the cultures that required it. In eras when children did not always survive into adulthood, was it considered a blessing that they were sacrificed for what the family believed to be a higher purpose? In ancient times, sacrifice hurt and most people, if not all, were affected by it in some way.

In modern times, if you mention the word sacrifice, someone may think you are talking about a particular play in baseball — the sacrifice fly ball. Another may think of it in terms of time; perhaps parents have to sacrifice their weekend to shuttle their kids to different activities. Others may think of it in terms of money or material things, but many times it’s more about sacrificing a luxury than something that is truly essential. (No, the cup of coffee from Starbucks is not essential; a habit perhaps, maybe an addiction, but it is not a requirement for life.) For people in lower economic brackets, they may need to make choices between modern day necessities like electricity, water, food, and medicine, but these choices are not necessarily sacrifices, as they are not freely choosing to give up any or all of those elements. Rather they are choosing what’s most important to their life, given the funds that they have. 

Sacrifice is a word that is used in our modern language. Sometimes it is confused with choice, or perhaps misused instead of it. In using it as such, the connotation softens the word, so that the harsh starkness of giving up something that is critical to life, or even life itself, no longer resonates. As Catholics, we hear about the ‘sacrifice of the Mass’ and perhaps we have even used that phrase ourselves. Yet each week we go to Mass, as the words of consecration are spoken, do we realize that what is taking place is Jesus giving Himself up on the cross on Calvary? While the Mass is the ‘unbloodied sacrifice’ it is nonetheless re-presenting the ultimate sacrifice of a life for a life – namely Jesus’ life for ours. Jesus freely gives His life to atone for what we never will be able to do: to make full reparation for the sins we commit. And He did it because He loves us. He did it even knowing that people turned away from Him. He did it so that we can hope in His mercy. He did it so that we can become the best version of ourselves in spite of our sinful predisposition. 

Jesus is both God and man, and so His death hurt. Not just His family and followers at the time, but for everyone who believes in Him. We should allow ourselves to feel hurt by His death. In participating in His death, we can better appreciate the resurrection, His ascension, and the descent of the Holy Spirit. Being affected by these events, we can immerse ourselves in the life of Jesus, sacrificing ourselves to become His representation in our little corner of the world. 

“…Yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh. I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given Himself up for me.”

Gal 2:20

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