Does God Want Sacrifice or Not?

When first introduced to praying the Psalms, I found some passages, especially of Psalms forty-nine and fifty, to be confusing on the subject of sacrifice. I knew they could not contradict either the rule of faith or each other, but I did not know how to resolve the apparent contradiction. In this case, as with most such cases, the resolution of a seeming contradiction in Holy Scripture brings with it some deeper insight into Divine Truth. This is probably a good example of what my friend Robert Hickson means when he says, as he often does, that “contrast clarifies the mind.”

Here, then, are the passages that used to give me trouble. We begin with Psalm 49:8-12:

[8] I will not reprove thee for thy sacrifices: and thy burnt offerings are always in my sight. [9] I will not take calves out of thy house: nor he goats out of thy flocks. [10] For all the beasts of the woods are mine: the cattle on the hills, and the oxen. [11] I know all the fowls of the air: and with me is the beauty of the field. [12] If I should be hungry, I would not tell thee: for the world is mine, and the fulness thereof. [13] Shall I eat the flesh of bullocks? or shall I drink the blood of goats? [14] Offer to God the sacrifice of praise: and pay thy vows to the most High. [15] And call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me.

At this point the Psalmist has changed from his own voice to speaking in the person of God Himself. One superficial reading of this section of the Psalm would have it that God does not want blood sacrifice, or even, more radically, that He is mocking the entire concept of animal sacrifice. One might imagine an anachronistic Israelite PETA member marshaling the passage forth in his effort to end cruelty to animals in divine worship. The brief note of introduction in the Challoner-Douay version is none too helpful for resolving our dilemma: “Deus deorum. The coming of Christ: who prefers virtue and inward purity before the blood of victims.”

Reading that passage alone does not answer the question: Does God want sacrifice or not?

The next passage is from Psalm 50:17-20:

[17] O Lord, thou wilt open my lips: and my mouth shall declare thy praise. [18] For if thou hadst desired sacrifice, I would indeed have given it: with burnt offerings thou wilt not be delighted. [19] A sacrifice to God is an afflicted spirit: a contrite and humbled heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. [20] Deal favourably, O Lord, in thy good will with Sion; that the walls of Jerusalem may be built up.

This is the fourth, and probably the most famous, of the seven penitential Psalms. King David composed it after his two-fold sin of adultery and murder when he lay with Bethsabee and then arranged for the death of her husband, Urias the Hethite, when the woman conceived. It was a horrible crime, only heightened by the goodness and personal loyalty of Urias to the man who had cuckolded him. Thankfully, Nathan the Prophet was on hand to rebuke David and bring him to penance. Thus was composed Psalm 50, which has been beautifully set to music by Gregorio Allegri, J.D. Zelenka, W.A. Mozart (in A minor and C minor), Leonardo Leo, and many other composers. (Listen to William Byrd’s version sung by members of the Garrepy family, who are friends of Saint Benedict Center.)

As a penitential psalm, Psalm 50 is a beautiful expression of inward contrition and compunction of heart. But it does not answer our question, or, if the above passage does answer it, the answer would seem to be in the negative, for the penitent David declares, “For if thou hadst desired sacrifice, I would indeed have given it: with burnt offerings thou wilt not be delighted. A sacrifice to God is an afflicted spirit: a contrite and humbled heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” Inward sacrifice, not the external rite is what God wants, and David seems to reject the latter with the contrary-to-fact clause, “if thou hadst desired sacrifice….”

But then, in the last verse of the Psalm, that reading seems to be contradicted entirely, when the Royal Prophet declares, “[21] Then [after Jerusalem is built up] shalt thou accept the sacrifice of justice, oblations and whole burnt offerings: then shall they lay calves upon thy altar.”

(Another passage from the Psalms, 39:7-10, would force me to go too long. Suffice it to say that Saint Paul, in Heb. 10:5-7, applies the Greek Septuagint version of this passage to Our Lord, thus giving us a deeper insight into what God wants by way of sacrifice.)

Taken together, these seemingly contrary sentiments of “God doesn’t want all these animal sacrifices but inward contrition” on the one hand and “God wants sacrifice of animals” on the other are not contrary, but complementary. God does want sacrifice — indeed, He had mandated it in the Mosaic Law, which was binding in David’s day — but He wants that sacrifice joined to inward virtues of humility and contrition, as well as inward acts of adoration, thanksgiving, reparation, and petition. Moreover, for the faithful of the Old Covenant, the external rite was supposed to signify and elicit those very interior things.

In speaking of “sacrifice,” so far, I been considering the various sacrifices of the Old Law. God clearly does not want those sacrifices any more. But does He still want sacrifice? Or are the Protestants right when they say that the Crucifixion of Our Lord settled that question once and for all, since the only acceptable Sacrifice was finally made, putting an end to all sacrifice?

Of course God wants sacrifice. Sacrifice is the highest act of the virtue of religion. Two episodes of Reconquest, “Giving God His Due” and “The Mass in the Old Testament” spell out, in some detail, how the Mass is indeed the Sacrifice of the New Law, as does an earlier Ad Rem, “The Mass in Type and Prophecy.” From the earliest Fathers of the Church, and with a stunning explicitness in Saint Ambrose, we learn that the Christian Church always had the cult of sacrifice continued in the Holy Mass, which is the unbloody representation of the same Sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross. The Sacrifice of the Mass differs from Calvary only in its manner of offering.

But what about other sacrifices? Does God want sacrifices from us?

Here, we must make a distinction between sacrifice in the proper sense, and sacrifice in the figurative sense. According to Father Nicholas Gihr, in his monumental The Sacrifice of the Mass, in its strict and proper sense, “Sacrifice is a special act of divine service, and, as such, differs essentially from all other acts of worship. … By sacrifice we understand the offering of a visible object, effected through any change, transformation or destruction thereof, in order effectually to acknowledge the absolute Majesty and Sovereignty of God as well as man’s total dependence and submission. … Not every gift offered to God is a sacrifice. It greatly depends on the way and manner of offering. Some change or destruction of the gift must take place to constitute a sacrifice. An entire destruction of the gift, or such as is at least morally equivalent, pertains essentially to the idea of sacrifice; hence its outward form. Whatever has not been liturgically transformed, e.g. destroyed, cannot be a real sacrifice (sacrificium), but is only a religious gift (oblatio), essentially different from sacrifice.”

In its figurative or broad sense, sacrifice can be applied to acts of virtue that both glorify God (as proper sacrifice does) and require some mortification of man’s sensual nature. As such, good acts peformed with a supernatural intention, that “cost” us some effort can be spoken of — improperly, figuratively, and broadly — as sacrifice. This is what Our Lady of Fatima called for when when She said, “pray much and make sacrifices for sinners, for many souls go to hell because there is no one to make sacrifices for them.” And also, “Sacrifice yourselves for sinners; and say often when you make some sacrifice, ‘My Jesus, it is for love of You, for the conversion of sinners, and in reparation for sins committed against the Immaculate Heart of Mary.’” Our Lord later told Sister Lucy that “The sacrifice required of every person is the fulfillment of his duties in life and the observance of My law. This is the penance that I now seek and require.”

When I say that this is a broad, figurative or improper use of the term, I am using the technical language of philosophy and theology. I am not saying that Our Lord or Our Lady used the terms incorrectly. The distinction between sacrifice in these senses if very important to our theology of the Mass, for it — being the unbloody re-presentation (as in “presenting again”) of the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross — is the one and only sacrifice in the strict and proper sense that we have in the New Covenant.

So, to answer the question: Yes, from us, His Church, God still wants sacrifice in the strict sense, for what else did Jesus command at the Last Supper when He said, “Do this for a commemoration of me” (Luke 22:19)?

“But,” one might object, “only the priest can offer that sacrifice, I can’t.” Ah, but you can, not in the way the ordained ministerial priest at the altar can, but in the way any of the baptized can offer the sacrifice with and under the ministerial priest, who is acting in the Person of Christ. It is for this reason that the priest turns around at the Orate Fratres and says, “Pray brethren that my sacrifice and yours be acceptable to God the Father almighty.” The egregious mistranslation in the English Novus Ordo of “our sacrifice” rather than “my sacrifice and yours” obliterated this distinction. (This has thankfully been fixed.) The “and yours” makes reference to the faithful, as members of the “royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9) of the baptized, being able to co-offer this unique New Testament sacrifice with God’s ordained minister at the altar. In the words of Father Gihr, “The Eucharist is the Sacrifice of the whole Church; it is not exclusively the priest’s Sacrifice, but the property of the faithful also. They partake in a variety of ways in in different degrees in the offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, while the priest in their name and for their benefit alone completes the sacrificial action itself.”

In the ancient Roman rite, the unbaptized catechumens, who were not yet deputed by Baptism to co-offer the Sacrifice of the Mass, were dismissed before the Canon of the Mass ever began. This is why the first part of the Mass is the “Mass of the Catechumens,” and the second, from the offertory on, is called the “Mass of the Faithful.” This custom still prevails in the Eastern Rites, where the dismissal of the catechumens is to this day sung by the deacon.

And to the question, “Does God want sacrifice in the figurative and improper sense?”, the answer is also in the affirmative, given what was said above about the Fatima message. Such is also the message of the whole New Testament.

In the Holy Mass, a sacrifice in the strict and proper sense of the word, the true religion still retains the cult of sacrifice. It is the immolation of the Man-God, whose merits, being divine, are of infinite value. Moreover, the very Manhood itself, that Sacred Humanity of Jesus, is sinless, spotless, and perfect in every way. Christ Our Lord’s action in the Mass is also an example to us. He who is both Priest and Victim offers Himself with a good and perfect Heart. By cultivating those virtues so beautifully expressed in the Psalms — faith, humility, hope, contrition, love of God, loyalty, promptitude in the divine service, etc. — our hearts will begin to resemble the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who, “by the Holy Ghost offered himself unspotted unto God” (Heb. 9:14) the Father for the glory of the Holy Trinity and for the salvation of men.