Everything comes together when we think not of the sacrifice of animals but of the redeeming sacrifice of the first-born Son of God
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Friday, 1st February 2019 at 5:00 PM
The idea of blood sacrifice, the sacrifice of an animal or animals to a deity, does not appeal greatly to our tastes. It feels somehow primitive and inappropriate. And yet, the account we have just heard of the presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the temple is explicit that the parents of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, offered a sacrifice according to what was stated in the law of the Lord ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons’.
This is the moment, forty days after the birth of our Lord, when by tradition his parents, Mary and Joseph, as the parents of a first-born son, should present him and offer him to the Lord.
The authority for this is in Exodus 22, when the Lord commanded his people not to delay making offerings from the harvest and of wine. The passage continues, ‘The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep.’
However, we remember that Abraham was willing to offer his first-born son Isaac to the Lord. He bound him upon an altar. He was prepared to strike the boy with the knife and to kill him, when he heard the angel of the Lord addressing him, saying ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ He saw a ram caught in a thicket and sacrificed the ram to the Lord instead of his son. The offering of the ram redeemed the life of Abraham’s son Isaac. He could continue to live.
St Luke, in retailing the account of the presentation of Christ in the temple, focuses heavily not on the sacrifice of a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons but on the encounters Mary and Joseph had with their child. Luke tells of their meeting with the old man Simeon, to whom it had been revealed that he would ‘not see death until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah’ and who predicted of Mary that a ‘sword should pierce her own soul’; and the meeting with the old prophet Anna, who ‘never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day’. Each of these meetings speaks deeply of the significance of this moment, when our Lord is presented to God his Father in the temple of the Lord.
Even so, the sacrifice of the birds is offered to the Lord, in order to prevent the need to offer the life of the baby Jesus in sacrifice.
The idea of sacrifice, in other words of offering a gift to the Lord, was fundamental to Judaism in the time of our Lord. First was the idea of the giving of something precious, the offering of a domestic animal, not a wild animal that is not a possession. Another aspect was that the animal offered was a substitute. The animal offered suffered in place of the person making the offer. The third aspect was the idea of coming closer, that the sacrifice brought a person closer to God.
Our Lord has his own ideas about the temple sacrifice. We see it clearly in each of the Gospels, when he visits the temple. The synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, locate this visit following the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday, a few days before his death. In St John’s Gospel, the visit is near the beginning of our Lord’s public ministry, during one of his visits to Jerusalem, immediately after the wedding feast at Cana of Galilee.
St John describes it like this. ‘In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’’ People planning to offer a sacrifice in the temple had been required to change their Roman money for Jewish money in order to pay for the sacrifice with something acceptable to God. So Jesus overturned the tables of the money-changers as well as driving the animals from the temple.
But the significance of this cleansing of the temple was not really at all about making the place quieter, more devout, more in our minds holy. Jesus was surely not concerned to make the temple in Jerusalem a place of worship a little more like a modern synagogue or an English church, with its peace and quiet. The entire purpose of the temple was the offering of sacrifice. And Jesus overturns not just the table of the money-changers but the very idea of offering a sacrifice to God. God does not need or want the sacrifice of animals.
This idea is not new or entirely original to our Lord. It is to be found in some of the prophets from the era before Christ. We hear the prophet Hosea, from the 8th century before Christ, saying, ‘What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early. I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings.’ The prophet Micah in the same era said, ‘Shall I come before the Lord with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old? 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? What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’
Everything comes together when we think not of the sacrifice of animals but of the redeeming sacrifice of the first-born Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. No animal can in the end substitute for his own self-offering love. Jesus despises the ancient sacrifices of animals in the temple. We see instead the sacrifice of Calvary as the ultimate gift offered to the Lord God Almighty, the gift of the life of his Son. Jesus freely offers his own life as an act of redemption. He redeems, he buys back, the life of all those who put their trust in him, who believe in him, who love him, who seek to follow him, and frees us from our weaknesses, our failures, our sin. But there is more.
At the beginning of the prayer of consecration, the Eucharistic prayer, in the Book of Common Prayer, the priest prays thus. ‘Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of that his precious death, until his coming again …’
The gift of Christ’s sacrifice is for the redemption, the salvation, of all people, of the whole world. This is a wonderful gift, which is available to us through Baptism and the holy Eucharist. Here in this celebration of the Eucharist, the reality of Christ’s self-offering love is brought into the present, into this moment, this assembly, and offered to us through the consecration of the bread and wine to be his Body and Blood: Christ in us the hope of glory.