Forget sacrifice — for Lent and forever more — the question is how to remain faithful to all the impossible, necessary resurrections

Annie Vallotton’s illustration of the (near) sacrifice of Isaac

From The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought ed. by Adrian Hastings (OUP, 2000, p. 637)

Sacrifice is one of the most inescapable, impenetrable, and off-putting themes in Christian thought. While the concept is prominent both in Jesus’ own teaching and in the way that his life and death have traditionally been understood and given meaning by theologians, it has provoked serious divisions between churches and proved repellent to many sensitive Christians.
     [. . .]
     Efforts to explain the meaning of [the] complex and sometimes conflicting biblical images [found in both the Old and New Testaments] have led to bitter argument and division. The fundamental split between liberals and conservatives within the church arises to a large extent from different understandings of the nature of Jesus’ sacrifice. While evangelicals have stressed its substitutionary character and once-for-all efficacy, those of a more liberal persuasion prefer to see it primarily as exemplary or revelatory and stress its ongoing nature. The major division in western Christendom inaugurated by the Reformation has long centered on disagreement about the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist, with Roman Catholics tending to stress the objective representation of Christ's sacrifice in the mass and Protestants preferring the focus to be on remembering his all-sufficient work on the cross. In view of all this dissension and dispute, it is not surprising that several modern Christian theologians have suggested that the whole notion of sacrifice should be abandoned.
     [. . .]
     One of the most fruitful and exciting developments arising from this renewed interest in sacrificial theology [in the 20th century] may well prove to be the construction of a new natural theology based on the power of sacrifice as the engine that drives all life in the universe as well as the principle eternally at work at the heart of the Godhead. Scientists, particularly biochemists and biologists, are increasingly finding and demonstrating the extent to which life at all levels is dependent on death. An important dimension of this discovery is the phenomenon known as programmed cell death through which the healthy growth and development of all living creatures depends on cells constantly dying and being reborn. This motif of life proceeding out of and through death in the natural world seems to parallel the liberating power of the blood poured out in the sacrificial rituals of primitive religions and the mysterious continuum of crucifixion and resurrection which is at the heart of the Christian faith.

(Entry written by Ian Bradley, University of St Andrews)

Micah 6:6-8 (NRSV)

6 ‘With what shall I come before the Lord,
   and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
   with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
   with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
   the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
   and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
   and to walk humbly with your God?

From Book One of the De Rerum Natura by Lucretius translated by David R. Slavitt

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . for Superstition produces
wicked even unholy, behaviour. Think of that host
at Aulis where Diana’s altar was fouled with blood
of Iphigenia: they decked the maiden’s hair with the filets
of sacrifice and she knew, when she saw her sorrowing father
surrounded by his attendants hiding the terrible knife
and the people assembled weeping silent, bitter tears,
what was about to happen. Think of that poor girl
who looked in vain to the king whom she had first called father
and trembled as men laid hands upon her and bore her not
to a flower-decked marriage altar with songs of loud rejoicing
but a sorrowing victim, immaculate virgin, to be defiled
by her father’s hand in order that fair winds favour the fleet.
By Superstition we are driven to deeds of such great evil.

(1:70-83 in Slavitt’s translation, 1:80-101 in the original latin)

Lent by Lynn Ungar

What will you give up for this season,
to help life along
in its curious reversals?
As if we had a choice.
As if the world were not
constantly shedding us
like feathers off a duck’s back—
the ground is always
littered with our longings.

You can’t help but wonder
about all the heroes,
the lives and limbs sacrificed
in their compulsion toward the good.
All those who dropped themselves
upon the earth’s hard surface–
weren’t they caught in pure astonishment
in the breath before they shattered?

Forget sacrifice. Nothing
is tied so firmly that the wind
won’t tear it from us at last.
The question is how to remain faithful
to all the impossible,
necessary resurrections.

Pierre Bezukhov speaking in Chapter 15 of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

“Life is everything. Life is God. Everything shifts and moves, and this movement is God. And while there is life, there is delight in the self-awareness of the divinity. To love life is to love God. The hardest and most blissful thing is to love this life in one’s suffering, in the guiltlessness of suffering.”


Forget sacrifice — for Lent and forever more — the question is how to remain faithful to all the impossible, necessary resurrections

Sacrifice of Iphegenia at Aulis on a Roman fresco
Last week, on the first Sunday of Lent, at the very beginning of the service, I read Lynn Ungar’s prayer/poem you heard again today in our readings. Her prayer/poem struck me as having a surprising power coming, as it does, to the theme of Lent “slant” and, since Lent is a season and not a day, I decided during the week to take a longer look at the text with you this morning.

Clearly, a key word to get some kind of grip upon in the text is “sacrifice”. Etymologically the word is derived from a combination of the Latin words “sacer” (meaning “sacred” or “holy”) and “facere” (meaning “to make” or “to do”). The sacred or holy thing one does in any sacrifice is to offer something to a deity as an act of propitiation or homage. In early times this offering was, for the most part, the life of a bird, sheep, goat, cow or bull but, as the near-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham and the ancient story of Iphegenia reminds us, it also on occasions the offering was a human being.

But, as over the centuries we moved into our own (more secular) age, the colloquial meaning of the word “sacrifice” has softened for the most part simply to mean giving up certain important things that were less ultimate than one’s actual life. So, for example, we’ll say things like: “in order to become the world’s number one tennis player she’s had to sacrifice everything else in her life to achieve it”.

Given my knowledge of Ungar’s own work as a committed Unitarian Universalist minister which assuredly requires the making of many small, everyday sacrifices, I’m fairly certain that she’s not using the word “sacrifice” in it’s softened, secular sense but only in its original, harder and violent sense of giving up one’s own life (or the lives of others) to a putative deity. But, and it’s a vital “but”, because her prayer/poem is called “Lent” the deity in question is clearly not any old god but the capital “G” Christian God, the God who, whichever way a traditional believer cuts it, is believed to have sacrificed his own son in order to save humanity from what were claimed to be its otherwise unforgivable sins so that a reconciliation could be brought about between them. This process of reconciliation is known in theological circles as “the Atonement”, a word derived from the Middle English word “attone” or “atoon” ( meaning “agreed” or, quite literally, “at one”). So, in this context, sacrifice is all about how to become “at one” with God of monotheism and the (to me, offensive and immoral) claim is that this could only be achieved by God through the actual sacrifice of his own son, Jesus Christ. By extension, for many Christians, this has come to mean that properly to follow Christ, and to be seen *properly* to be following Christ, individual persons had themselves to continue to imitate the same kind of sacrifice in their own lives.

It is to this kind of practice that I think Ungar is referring when she writes about “all the heroes” who have sacrificed their own (and sometimes other) “lives and limbs . . . in their compulsion toward the good” — in other words, toward God. These are the people whom she imagines were “caught in pure astonishment in the breath before they shattered” themselves “upon the earth’s hard surface.” The surprise, we may imagine, is that in their moment of sacrifice there is no moment of becoming one with a supernatural God (at-one-ment) but only a breaking into disparate parts; into, at best, fractured and damaged lives or, at worst, into hacked off body-parts or into the ash left over from a martyrs pyre.

This conception of sacrifice to a supernatural God who was willing, quite deliberately to make a world in which things could only be made “right” by willingly sacrificing unto death his own son is, I think, what Ungar is asking us to give up for Lent when she writes “forget sacrifice”. I’m with her all the way as have been, as our reading from Ian Bradley’s article reveals, many other modern theologians.

Ungar wants us to forget sacrifice — or so it seems to me — because human life is always (at least potentially) filled with “curious reversals” even though the natural world is “constantly shedding us like feathers off a duck’s back” and where “the ground is always littered with our longings.”

In other words, when nature is doing what nature does (natura naturans or naturing-naturing) — and nature can never do anything else, of course! — our life is always-already full of things we colloquially call “loss”. But these losses (if losses they really are) are not sacrifices offered up to a vengeful judgemental God to bring about “at-one-ment” with that same God, but simply the natural precondition for, and consequence of, life (at least as we know it). As Ungar tacitly admits, about all this we simply don’t have a choice and so she has no alternative but to remind us that “nothing is tied so firmly that the wind won’t tear it from us at last.”

Her prayer/poem ends, not by providing any definitive answers to what forgetting sacrifice is exactly to look like but by posing another question, namely, “how to remain faithful to all the impossible, necessary resurrections.”

But before we can be faithful to them we need to have a sense of what on earth “impossible, necessary resurrections” might look like? Clearly, in order to salvage this sentence from being complete nonsense, we cannot take Ungar to be using the words “impossible” or “necessary” in their strict dictionary senses. If something is truly impossible it is impossible and cannot happen and, if it cannot happen, it cannot also be necessary except as something which cannot happen.

So, what’s going on here? Well, Ungar must have in mind, I think, the Christian resurrection itself which, certainly if you find yourself a member of a modern Unitarian, Universalist or Free Christian community such as this, is impossible from the point of view of our generally, strongly held naturalistic world-view (after all, dead people do not rise from the dead). However, if as a member of our communities you wish to maintain a meaningful, living connection with the Christian tradition then the resurrection is, in some fashion, necessary. To quote St Paul on the matter, as the translation of the Jesus Seminar puts it: “if the Anointed has not been raised, then our message has lost its credibility and so has your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14, The Authentic Letters of Paul, Polbridge Press, 2010, p. 103).

The Christian tradition — even in it’s most liberal and radical form found in this church tradition — only continues to exist because members of the community continue to have a sense that although Jesus was assuredly killed and died (and for us remains dead and buried in some unknown grave in Palestine) something (even if only figuratively or symbolically or poetically) survived his death and the grave which allowed those who followed Jesus — both then and now — to be able to say meaningfully “He is Risen!” Understood in this fashion the resurrection of Jesus is for members of this community, therefore, both impossible and necessary. It is, to use Ungar’s own phrase, an example of a “curious reversal”.

But, remember, Ungar uses the word “resurrection” in the plural and so she is clearly not only talking about the paradigmatic resurrection found in the example of Jesus and so the question is also what other kinds of impossible, necessary resurrections or curious reversals are there that might be analogous to that which some of us  still see and experience (figuratively or symbolically or poetically) in connection with the person of Jesus?

Well, I would say we see such a thing when- and wherever we continue to live and act in hope even though so much of our experience of humanity (historical evidence if you like) seems to be running wholly against the apparent, immediate reasonableness and realizability of our hope. A powerful present example might be the hope many of us continue to have that, somehow, though only God knows how, we can persuade humanity as a whole to take effective steps to halt catastrophic climate change. Our hope for this, from many perspectives, looks utterly dead and buried. I mean who at the moment — apart from, perhaps our glorious, rebellious children — can with any confidence continue to believe that, together, capitalist Europe, the USA, South America, India, Russia etc. is going to be able to make the massive, collective changes that are clearly needed to turn our parlous and frightening situation around? And yet, and yet, many of us do so continue to believe. We find our hope arises daily from the dead, our hope is daily resurrected because it is for us something both impossible and necessary and, despite the ground around us being “littered with our longings”, we find (miracle of miracles) that we are still compelled to believe in the possibility of curious reversals.

To bring about such curious reversals will, of course, always require from all of us  many everyday kinds of “sacrifices” but, as I have often intimated in other addresses, whenever we can begin to see God as Nature, Nature as God — Spinoza’s sublime conception of  deus sive natura —  these losses cease to be sacrifices offered up to a vengeful judgemental God to bring about “at-one-ment” with that same God and become, instead simply examples of nature naturing. I find it telling that our minister emeritus’, Frank Walker, single change to Percy Dearmer’s lovely lenten lyric of “Now quit your care” (which we’ll sing in a moment) is found in verse three where Frank would lead us, not to “where God’s glory flashes, His beauty to come nigh”  but to ““where Life’s glory flashes, Life’s beauty to come nigh.” (Click on the picture to the right in order to enlarge the lyric.)

As Tolstoy has Pierre Bezukhov say Chapter 15 of War and Peace:

“Life is everything. Life is God. Everything shifts and moves, and this movement is God. And while there is life, there is delight in the self-awareness of the divinity. To love life is to love God. The hardest and most blissful thing is to love this life in one’s suffering, in the guiltlessness of suffering.”

So, yes, let’s forget sacrifice — for Lent and forever more — and, instead, begin daily to give ourselves up only to Life’s glory. Self-consciously to do this is, in the old sense of the word, surely no sacrifice at all but, instead simply a joyous and celebratory way of reconnecting again and again and again with the very source of Life itself, nature herself constantly naturing. If we can do this I feel as sure as I can be that we will begin to open ourselves to many other impossible, necessary resurrections and curious reversals and, when we come to sing our final hymn, be able to sing and mean  “Arise, Arise, Arise! and make life a paradise!”