+ + +
The sun the source of our life on earth is a rather small star in the universe. But it is huge compared to the earth. You could fit more than 1 million earths into the sun if it were hollow. 1 million. And, every second the sun is turning 4 million tons of its solar self, its solar material, its mass into energy—light. It generates that light and gives it away, you could say. The material it transforms into light is not replaced; the sun is transforming itself and giving itself away. We are circling around what we could call solar generosity—and sacrifice. Everything you’ve ever done is what we could call a solar event—the result of solar sacrifice and generosity.
I thought about this as I pondered the story of Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to the Temple and sacrificing two doves. Luke tells this story to emphasize something we so often forget. Jesus was a Jew—not a Christian. (and certainly not an Episcopalian). He and his family were faithful Jews. Luke says they come to the Temple to fulfill the Law.
The two doves offered as sacrifice were part of a long history of Temple sacrifices offered to God. Such sacrifices in Judaism were offered as long as there was a Temple—and they were designed to offer thanks and praise, or to restore a relationship between the person or community and God. The Hebrew word sacrifice is korban which in its root means “to bring close.” It was meant to bring the worshiper into a close relationship with God.
To talk about sacrifice can be problematic. The idea of animal or even more so, human, sacrifice is repugnant to many of us. The story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son and the last-minute substitution of a lamb for Isaac is etched in our imaginations. Scripture itself offers mixed messages about sacrifice: In Psalm 50 Yahweh declares “I have no need of your sacrifices,” and Hosea the prophet famously cries out “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
Nonetheless, we Christians have the image of the cross and the centrality of Christ’s sacrifice there. The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus’ sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. There is so much opined and written about the sacrifice of atonement: from the notions of God demanding a sacrifice to balance the scales of justice, so horribly unbalanced by the sinfulness of humanity, to the notion of Jesus paying a ransom for said sorry human beings, and so on. Our own eucharistic prayers generally emphasize the sacrifice of atonement—we hear those words week in and out. They offer a description of how Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross brought us into a closer relationship with God.
Whatever our understanding of the cross, in our own day in our culture and often in the church the centrality of sacrifice has been distorted as a call for self-sacrifice-no-matter-the-cost for some more than others. Countless women have been raised to understand sacrifice as their calling and their way of earning value in life. A small number of men are raised to view making the ultimate sacrifice in war as their particular vocation. Racism makes unjust sacrificial demands that are exacted at excruciating cost. These are perverse.
Yet, loving sacrifice is not about earning value; at its best it’s rooted in one’s own acceptance of God’s unconditional love. Sacrifice, self-giving and self-restraint are central to love—to loving relationships and to the divine. Love in its regard for the other inevitably leads to sacrifice. Think about it…if I love someone, I will give way to their needs or desires even, to their pain or suffering. What parent has ever raised a child with love without any sacrifice? What teacher has ever actually taught a student without some kind of sacrifice, or restraint? Soldiers in a platoon, firefighters on the front lines, friends over years,—all of them have had to sacrifice for the good of the others, for the good of the community. Mutual loving relationships are filled with mutual giving way and generosity.
Paul’s Letter to the Philippians has a passage, considered to be one of the earliest church hymns, that describes Jesus as emptying himself to take on his humanity. Not using all his power maybe, not blasting us with so much truth that we can’t see straight. Exercising restraint, not forcing anything. The marks of this kind of sacrifice are how it offers, rather than forces, how it gives generously rather than takes, how it invites rather than demands. How it loves.
At the Temple the old man, Simeon, says that this amazing child is going to cause Mary pain—he’ll also reveal the inner thoughts of many—there will be fallings and risings because of this child. We hear the echoes of Malachi who describes the coming of the Lord to the Temple asking, “who can endure the day of his coming, who can stand when he appears?”
Our minds might leap to images of power here. Power over, causing those fallings and risings, those revelations of your inner self. I think of those who mocked Jesus at his crucifixion, sarcastically reminding him that if he were so all powerful, he’d save himself. We keep thinking of power this way. But divine power is of a different order. It is love, we say, and we know that love’s character is marked by sacrifice and restraint as well as all the other more popularly embraced ways of love.
Love can strip away all of our pretenses and armor: revealing our innermost selves. We know these moments in our daily lives—they come to us in so many tiny ways. The other night I listened and watched a man who has dedicated his life to practicing nonviolence. He sat in utter simplicity saying how hard that practice is and how much he still has to learn. In the silence, his witness left my inner self exposed. . . A simple question asked in love, a glance even can have a similar effect. Who can stand when love appears? Really?
This is the thing about love. It does strip us bare. And, this can be a place of transformation for us. Sometimes when you stop to think of all the sacrifices that have been made for you maybe by your parents, grandparents, your spouse, your brother or sister, the guy at work, you feel your inner self laid out. When the generosity of love is right before our eyes, we are humbled and vulnerable. Who can endure this kind of thing? The sacrifices and generosity of love.
Jesus’ life was full of sacrifice, of restraint, of meeting people where they were and loving them into newness—it isn’t just his death we should remember. And, we can understand his death as not stemming from broken relationship, but from the deepest relationship. A giving over to the powers that be, so that we might know the presence of God at the very depths of life. Jesus’ life wasn’t just focused on sin and broken relationship—really it was about loving relationship. His life rooted in that unconditional love of God. His generosity. His living from the abundance of life and the myriad ways that abundance flowed through him to others.
We can think about that in our present circumstance. How loving is our living? Where are the marks of sacrifice and generosity that witness to our love? For whom do we sacrifice or for what? Does our sacrifice flow out of our rootedness in God’s love or are we trying to earn love?
We can look to the universe for our metaphors. Life in the universe comes out of sacrifice and generosity—not just the sun, but other stars. This is transformative. The sun’s energy enables our very lives. The stars: dying, exploding—all those atoms, floating around there for billions of years, some of them came together to become us. Who can believe it, imagine it? Talk about awesome!
And, here on earth, the sacrifices and generosity of the earth itself… and the sacrifices made by those who have loved you have been all about transformation. Their generosity enabling you to grow and change and to become a loving person yourself. Let us pray that our transformation into loving and generous souls brings us to heal our hurting earth. To remember our relationship not only with each other, but with creation itself.
This is all about love and relationship at the heart of life—at the heart of the universe. A power beyond all power: sacrificial and generous. Transforming and making new. The divine at work.