Remembering Which Sacrifice?
It’s an easy temptation, wherever the false doctrine of exceptionalism is rife, to treat national holidays as liturgical ones, especially when they happen to occur in proximity. So let us be reminded: today, the universal Church celebrates the feast of the body and blood of Christ. Not anything else.
The universality of the Church’s feasts, and of the Eucharist itself, is a necessary guard against the imperial tendency to think ourselves the center of the world, including the Church. Various countries may have their own particular days to memorialize those killed in war, but these stories are not the Church’s story. The Church’s story is the Christ-event, which continues in our Lord’s living presence to us at the Eucharistic table, celebrated today by millions of Catholics around the world. The Church’s memorial is to come to this table, and by so doing, to “proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.”
It is the body and blood of Christ received in the Eucharist, moreover, that unify the body as Church, bringing us into communion with one another. Not only does this communion include Christians whose countries have fought and killed one another; by consequence it includes Christians whose countries have constructed sometimes-conflicting narratives that try to make sense of those deaths.
On a certain level, the search for meaning in death is a natural part of grief. When we’re looking for a reason to believe our loved ones did not die in vain, the easiest thing, if they were members of the armed forces, is to seek solace in the vaguely heroic-sounding vocabulary that the national narrative provides.
Thinking of this, I was particularly struck at Mass this morning by the word “sacrifice”. The sacrifice the Church celebrates in the Eucharist is of a profoundly different nature from the sacrifice the State celebrates in its narrative of war, as Michael Iafrate once eloquently pointed out before my time here. Granted, there is some room for debate on the extent to which these different sacrifice narratives are mutually exclusive, but there is a definite point at which they clash: their claims to primacy. That is why Christians cannot assent to, much less baptize, the invocation of anything as “the ultimate sacrifice” other than the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
There are, of course, other sacrifices that are more conformed to his, both in the daily dying to self to which he calls us all who would follow him, and more noticeably, when his followers lay down their lives, without taking lives, for his sake. I heard the deacon tell a story in this morning’s homily of an Englishwoman who was martyred for her belief in the Eucharist and housing of priests. I thought also of Oscar Romero, martyred at the very altar of Christ’s sacrifice. Deaths like these are united to Christ’s because they necessarily follow it: there is an element of humility. By contrast, while the word “sacrifice” shows up frequently in the narrative of nationalism, the word “humility” is decidedly absent.
The State can and will celebrate its own narrative. We can’t escape its presence, and I’m not suggesting we try. But as Christians we must never, ever confuse it with salvation history, nor set any other sacrifice equal to or above the one we celebrate in the Eucharist. To do so can have no other name than idolatry.
May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands, for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and for the good of all his holy church.
This is truly the ultimate sacrifice. There is no other.