The Catechetical Review - Communicating Christ for a New Evangelization

The Spiritual Life: Sacrifice – Path to Communion

Authored by André Villeneuve in Issue #8.4 of Catechetical Review

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logo for the National Eucharistic Revival.Editor’s Note: The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has announced a three-year Eucharistic revival, to reawaken Catholics to the goodness, the beauty, and the truth of Jesus in the Eucharist. Each issue of the Catechetical Review, during the revival, will feature an article on the Eucharist, to empower our readers to make increasingly more meaningful contributions to the Eucharistic faith of those we teach. We hope you enjoy this article.

The great mystery of Christ’s sacrifice for us is at the heart of the Christian faith: “For Christ, our Paschal Lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7). As the Catechism explains, Jesus’ death manifests his sacrifice in two ways:

Christ’s death is both the Paschal sacrifice that accomplishes the definitive redemption of men, through “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” and the sacrifice of the New Covenant, which restores man to communion with God by reconciling him to God through the “blood of the covenant, which was poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (CCC 613)

Thus, the two principal effects of Christ’s sacrifice are, first, to remove our sins, and, second, to restore communion with God. Transformed by this gift of divine love, we are called to imitate Jesus and “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2). Indeed, the Church teaches that every baptized Christian participates in Christ’s sacrifice (CCC 618). We are especially joined to it in the sacrament of the Eucharist, which makes Christ’s sacrifice ever present to us (CCC 1364). The Eucharist is a sacrifice because “it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross, because it is its memorial and because it applies its fruit” to our lives by taking away our sins and restoring communion with God (CCC 1366).

The problem is that for most people today, the biblical notion of sacrifice seems obscure. What does sacrifice in general, and Christ’s sacrifice in particular, really mean? And how do the sacraments—especially Reconciliation and the Eucharist—manifest the Lord’s sacrifice?

The best way to gain insight into these questions is to consider the symbolism of the sacrifices in the Old Testament.

The Symbolism of Sacrifice

Rabbi Joshua Berman provides valuable insights on the connections between covenant, sacrifice, and love in the Hebrew Bible. Sacrifice was viewed in the ancient world as a bilateral process whereby the owner of the animal to be sacrificed had to “renounce his ownership of the animal so that the gods could receive the animal in his place.”[1]These two acts—renouncing and receiving—were taken up in the biblical sacrifices. A sacrifice is kadosh—sanctified, dedicated, and set apart for God; and an animal dedicated for sacrifice is hekdesh—made holy. Sacrifice thus meant abnegation, renunciation, and forfeiture for the owner. When an animal was brought to be offered in the Temple, the owner renounced his claim over it and could no longer use it for his personal benefit. At the same time, the smoke and smell of the animal burnt on the altar rising to heaven was received by God as pleasing to him, a “pleasing odor to the LORD” (Lv 3:5).

Yet, the main connotation of sacrifice (korban) in the Bible is not that of renunciation, gift, or acceptance. The root of the Hebrew word korban (pl. korbanot) means “close.” A korban is “that which has been brought close” to God’s presence in the sanctuary, and offering a sacrifice (lehakriv korban) means literally “to bring the sacrifice close.” The ultimate purpose of the korbanot is to draw God’s people close and bring them into communion with him.

Sacrifices are also symbols of repentance whereby the gap between God and man caused by sin is bridged by the atoning death of the animal and the shedding of its blood. Sin is incompatible with God’s presence,[2] and its consequence is death.[3] By offering sacrifices, a person overcomes the alienation and death sentence that sin has brought upon him. This is done by transferring not only his sins onto the animal to be sacrificed but also his own identity through the act of semikhah—laying hands on the animal’s head and “leaning” on it. It is a symbolic act of investiture: The animal becomes representative of its owner, and the offering of the sacrifice is “an execution in effigy” with a rehabilitative purpose. “As he stands before God in the Temple and witnesses his own execution by proxy for sins he committed, the owner of the offering is meant to reach a new awareness of his obligations to God so that his breach will not be repeated.”[4]

The medieval Jewish commentator Nachmanides explains that the identification of the sinner with the sacrificed animal was taken quite literally:

[The owner] should burn the innards and the kidneys [of the offering] in fire because they are the instruments of thought and desire in the human being. He should burn the legs since they correspond to the hands and feet of a person, which do all his work. He should sprinkle the blood upon the altar, which is analogous to the blood in his body. All these acts are performed in order that when they are done, a person should realize that he has sinned against God with his body and his soul, and that “his” blood should really be spilled and “his” body burned, were it not for the loving-kindness of the Creator, Who took from him a substitute and a ransom, namely this offering, so that its blood should be in place of his blood, its life in place of his life, and that the chief limbs of the offering should be in place of the chief parts of his body.[5]

The rites of the korbanot are thus punitive measures that the owner viewed as carried out on his own body. By burning and obliterating the animal, he “eradicates the element of his sinful persona that exhibited animalism rather than humanity.”[6] The slaughter of the animal, the shedding and sprinkling of its blood, and the annihilation of its body in the flames was no doubt a stark pedagogical experience that was purgative and cathartic, deepening the owner’s conversion and strengthening his resolve not to sin again.

Sacrifices for Communion and in Communion

The Book of Leviticus outlines five main types of sacrifices. These can be classified into two major categories: sacrifices for communion and sacrifices in communion.

Sacrifices for communion were mandatory. Their purpose was to restore to communion those Israelites who had broken the covenant and ruptured their relationship with God by sinning. The sin-offering (Heb. chattat) represents a purifying or cleansing of the spiritual defilement engendered by sin (Lv 4). The guilt-offering (asham) signifies indemnity, reparation payment, repairing damage, and making restitution (Lv 5:14–6:7). The description of these two solemn sacrifices in Leviticus is always accompanied by the refrain “and the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven.”[7] They are never described as producing “a pleasing odor to the Lord.”

Sacrifices in communion, by contrast, were voluntary. Only those Israelites in covenantal relationship with God—that is, not in a state of sin—could offer them. First, the whole burnt offering (olah), in which the entire animal was burnt on the altar and its blood was sprinkled around it, signified a complete dedication to God (Lv 1). Since the blood symbolizes the soul (Lv 17:11), the animal’s blood represented both the owner’s blood and soul. Thus, the sprinkling of the blood symbolized “not the forfeiture of the owner’s life, but the rededication of his soul in concert with the rest of his being” to God.[8] Second, the grain offering (minchah)—a gift to God consisting of flour, cakes, or wafers—could be offered on its own or together with burnt and peace offerings (Lv 2). Third, the peace offering (zevach shelamim)—a covenantal feast centered around the consumption of meat—symbolized communion with God. It was a shared meal that ritualized the bond between the two parties or celebrated its ongoing renewal. The Jewish people continually rededicated themselves to God, their covenantal partner, by offering shelamim, of which there were three kinds: (1) the thanksgiving offering (the Todah, which could be rendered in Greek as Eucharistia), (2) the vow offering, and (3) the freewill offering (Lv 7:11–12, 16).

The olah and the zevach were thus covenantal gestures that recalled and renewed the original bond made between God and Israel at Sinai. There, Moses mediated the ordinances of the Torah; the people solemnly vowed their obedience; burnt-offerings and peace-offerings were offered; the covenant was sealed by the sprinkling of blood on the altar and on the people; and Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders went up the mountain where “they beheld God, and ate and drank” (Ex 24:3–11). This ceremony was immediately followed by the coming of the glory of the Lord in the cloud (Ex 24:15–18). The close intimacy between God and Israel at Sinai was thus enacted by the sacrifice of olot, signifying complete dedication between the two parties, and the offering and eating of shelamim, signifying intimate communion between them. This was an experience where “man, literally, and God, figuratively, partake of the same feast.”[9] Significantly, the peace offerings included the presentation of loaves and wine (Nm 15:1–10). This idea of a shared sacrificial meal attests to the idea that communion with God is attained by “eating with him,” and that eating is the most hallowed form of worship.[10]

In short, the korbanot were sanctified and dedicated gifts to God established for the sake of drawing man close to him. Some (the sin and guilt offerings) were expiatory symbols representing punishment, providing atonement and forgiveness, purifying sin and making reparation for it, and calling to conversion. Others (the whole-burnt and peace offerings) were symbols of covenantal feasting whose purpose was to bring the human into the presence of the divine and into intimate communion with him. It is interesting to note that the Midrash—the ancient Jewish commentary on Leviticus—announces that all sacrifices will one day come to an end—except for one: “In the age to come all sacrifices will be annulled, but that of thanksgiving [Todah] will not be annulled, and all prayers will be annulled, but [that of] thanksgiving will not be annulled.”[11]

Fulfillment in Christ

This understanding of sacrifice sheds light on the meaning of Christ’s sacrificial love, revealed when he “loved the Church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25) by offering himself as a “fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2). As the sacrifice of the New Covenant, Christ recapitulates in himself the sacrifices for communion: He purchased his Bride with his own blood (Eph 1:7; 2:13; 1 Pt 1:18–19) to atone for her sins, make reparation and restitution for them, and purify and sanctify her. Yet his sacrifice also embodies the sacrifices in communion: By offering himself, he proves his dedication and love for his Bride, calling her to union and communion with him.

These two roles of Christ’s sacrifice are reflected in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist. The Sacrament of Reconciliation primarily reflects the sacrifices for communion, granting the forgiveness of sins and healing the relationship with God. The Eucharist primarily reflects the sacrifices in communion, expressing fellowship and union with God. Just as an ancient Jew first had to offer sin and guilt offerings to atone for his sins before he could present whole burnt offerings and partake of the peace offerings, so Catholics today must first obtain the forgiveness of their sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation before they can partake of the Eucharist.

The concept of eating as the most hallowed form of worship is thus evident in both Old and New Testaments: The peace offerings (shelamim) offered with bread and wine (and especially the Todah sacrifice of thanksgiving) foreshadows the sharing of the Eucharistic bread and wine as the highest and most intimate form of communion with the incarnate Christ. St. Paul likely alludes to this when he says that the Lord “nourishes and cherishes” the Church, his bride and his own flesh (Eph 5:29).

On Love and Death

These considerations point to a close relationship between sacrifice and love, and to how the element of self-renunciation and death in the offering of sacrifices symbolizes the owner’s total self-gift to his Maker. According to Jewish tradition, the command of the Shema to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and strength (Dt 6:5) means that a person must love him “even when God takes your soul from you.”[12] The love of God is thus a total commitment, even unto death. As Jewish scholar Michael Fishbane says: “Heavenly love is activated by human death. Self-sacrifice thus stands at the heart of Being—a sacrament of love for the salvation of God.”[13]

Rabbinic commentaries elaborate with a verse from Psalm 44: “for your sake we are slain all the day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter” (Ps 44:22). But how, the sages ask, can one be killed “all the day long”? They answer that “the Holy One, blessed be He, regards the righteous as if they are killed every day.”[14] This is a kind of “martyrdom in installments” whereby the righteous “kill” their evil inclination and evil heart in a constant act of self-mortification and sacrifice of their base desires for God’s sake.[15]

For mystics like St. Paul, to be “at home in the body” means to be “away from the Lord” (2 Cor 5:6). This is the motivation for martyrdom: A willing death for God is not only the ultimate sacrifice of love but also the quickest way to consummate the mystical union with him (Phil 1:21–23). A Jewish prayer for the Day of Atonement expresses the same idea: “O Lord! . . . when I am far from You—my life is death; and were I to cleave to You—my death would be life.”[16] But if martyrdom is the highest expression of love for God, it remains an occasion that occurs rarely, and few are those who joyfully choose that path. In normal circumstances, various forms of ritual simulation and substitution symbolize the person’s death for God. The biblical sacrifices are the most evident form of ritual substitution by which a person could “practice death.” Reconciliation and union with God are accomplished through sacrifice because of its cost to the owner. His renunciation of something valuable is symbolic of his own self-renunciation, self-denial, and death.

The essence of sin is a disordered self-love whereby a person places his own desires first, even to the point of disobeying God and forsaking his commandments. Sacrifice reverses this process and counters human egoism by forsaking costly goods and offering them as dedicated gifts to God. The animal is thus a symbolic substitute of the owner’s self-offering to God. The shedding of the animal’s blood and consumption of its body in the flames are a substitute for the death that he should have incurred by his transgression of God’s commandments. Free-will offerings and sacrifices of communion are of even higher value because they are optional gifts, gratuitously offered to God out of selfless generosity.

Death seems to be the limit of love on earth and the ultimate enemy of love. In marriage, the earthly love between spouses apparently comes to an end when one of them dies. Yet, love can also die while both spouses are still alive. When human love is not sustained by sacrifice, it runs the risk of weakening, waning, and dying. If love fizzles out while the spouses are still alive, death has essentially won over love. On the other hand, love that prevails “till death do us part” manifests the very victory of love over death. When spouses withstand all trials until the end of earthly life, when death is the only thing able to separate them, then death is defeated by its own apparent victory. Love has prevailed—indeed, love “strong as death” (Cant 8:6). This is the love of Christ for the Church that he demonstrated by his sacrificial death, bearing all suffering until the bitter end. Precisely for this reason, nothing—not even death—can separate the Church from her divine Bridegroom (Rm 8:37–39). As Fishbane explains: “Self-sacrifice thus stands in the center of world-restorative actions, actually replacing the ancient Temple as the site of ritual at-one-ment.”[17]

In Imitatio Christi

Every Christian is called to imitate Christ in his self-sacrificial love. Obviously, this is easier said than done. For it requires “[putting] to death what is earthly in [us]” (Col 3:5) by a long and arduous process of “practicing death” in self-denial, self-mortification, and kenosis (self-emptying). This is only possible if we do it not only in imitation of Christ (Phil 2:3-8) but also in union with him insofar as Christ lives in us (Gal 2:20).

Christ lives most fully in us through the Eucharist. Indeed, “In the Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ becomes also the sacrifice of the members of his Body. The lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer, and work, are united with those of Christ and with his total offering, and so acquire a new value” (CCC 1368).

Through union with Christ in the Eucharist and in imitation of his sacrifice, the Christian life embodies the ancient Temple offerings. Having received the forgiveness of sins and restored communion with God, the faithful can in turn offer their bodies as “living [sacrifices], holy and pleasing to God” in a “spiritual act of worship” (Rm 12:1).

André Villeneuve is Associate Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, MI. He is the author of Divine Marriage from Eden to the End of Days: Communion with God as Nuptial Mystery in the Story of Salvation (WIPF and Stock Publishers, 2021).


[1] Joshua Berman, The Temple: Its Symbolism and Meaning Then and Now (Northvale, NJ: J. Aronson, 1995), 115.

[2] Dt 31:17–18; Ps 32:1–5; Isa 59:1–2; Ezek 23:18.

[3] Gn 2:7; 3:19; 6:5–7; Exod 31:14–15; 32:33–34; Lv  20.

[4] Berman, The Temple, 118–19.

[5] Nachmanides, Commentary on the Torah, Lv  1:9.

[6] Berman, The Temple, 120.

[7] Lv  4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:6, 10, 13, 16, 18.

[8] Berman, The Temple, 125.

[9] Ibid., 130.

[10] Ibid., 136–138.

[11] Leviticus Rabbah 9:7, on Lv  7:11.

[12] Mishnah Berakhot 9:5

[13] Michael Fishbane, The Kiss of God: Spiritual and Mystical Death in Judaism (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994), 126.

[14] Rabbi Simeon ben Menasia, quoted in Fishbane, The Kiss of God, 6.

[15] Fishbane, The Kiss of God, 8.

[16] Ibid., 11.

[17] Ibid., 104.

This article originally appeared on pages 14-17 of the printed edition.

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This article is from The Catechetical Review (Online Edition ISSN 2379-6324) and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of The Catechetical Review by contacting [email protected]

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