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He has offered one single sacrifice for sins (Heb 10)
As we read the Passion Narrative in today’s gospel we do a helicopter view of the story that we will retell intensely during the three days before Easter Sunday. In the coming week we will swoop down into the details and every year, provided we are paying attention, we will find new insights to surprise and delight us.
For many of us the religious language of sacrifice is a problem. It’s hard when we are told that we need to make sacrifices to keep spiritually acceptable. It is especially difficult to understand God asking for sacrifice. It seems hard-hearted, cruel and dualistic. For contemplatives in the making – as we as meditators are –a very different sense of God is forming through the work of laying aside thoughts and images. We don’t speak to God when we are saying the mantra. We are not asking for anything or waiting for reward. Our understanding of God simplifies and purifies even to the point (as the mystics knew) when God seems about to disappear.
Over time and strangely a quite new kind of God-experience develops that is interwoven with ourselves but in a non-spatial way: there is no distance between us and God.
We must remember that the language of sacrifice was common to the religious mind of the time because, in its ancient, literal form of sacrificing animals to the gods, it was such a common part of daily life and a way of dealing with anxiety. Knowing the details of Temple sacrifice in Jerusalem, we probably feel revulsion. Comparing the suffering and death of Jesus with the cutting of the throats of sheep, chickens, goats and sheep – more than 250,000 times a day - seems an immense error.
In fact, when Christian writers spoke about the ‘sacrifice’ that Jesus offered of himself (‘as priest and victim’) they saw it as a watershed moment, a turning-point in the religious consciousness of humanity. After him, sacrifice of that violent kind that filled us with fear became obsolete. ‘For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings, says the Lord (Hos. 6:6)
The mentality of sacrifice results from the burden of karma and the fear of punishment induced by guilt. About the same time as the prophet Hosea the Buddhist Shantideva’s teaching on the Bodhisattva way of life, about 800CE, echoes the prophets and Jesus:
If the suffering of many disappears because of the suffering of one, then a compassionate person should induce that suffering for his own sake and for the sake of others (trans. Wallace: 106)
Mercy burns away karma leaving the background radiation of love.
Laurence Freeman
Lenten Reflections 2022
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