THE commemoration of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is a deeply individual matter. The same liturgy can affect two people in the same pew in completely different ways, touching one to the quick, leaving the other cold. This year — whether or not people make it to a pew — that variance is heightened. For many this year, Holy Week has stolen up unnoticed, without the prelude of Lenten observances. Who knew quite how important hymns were in telling the seasons? For others, there has been what amounts to a year-long Lent.
The pandemic has, indeed, provided plenty of material for the contemplation of sacrifice. Medics, teachers, supermarket staff, and any number of front-line workers have put themselves in harm’s way to maintain essential supplies and services. Too many of them have paid with their lives or their health, poorly supplied with PPE, or simply prey to the virulence of Covid-19. The rest of the public have practised sacrifice, too: giving up travel, socialising, and contact with others. The Government’s rhetoric has, understandably, dwelt on this aspect of giving stuff up, expressing sympathy and praise for a public that has been overwhelmingly compliant.
Sacrifice is much more than the negative experiences of relinquishment and loss, however. The Latin etymology is simple: a compound of sacri- from sacer, sacred, and facere, to make. Whereas typical usage emphasises the high value of what is being given up, the word is more concerned with the value of the act itself, and, in religious terms, to whom the sacrifice is made. Following this understanding, Christ sacrifices himself to the Father in an act that brings sacredness to the human enterprise. Plenty to contemplate there, but another language brings a different perspective. Igor Zinkov, an intern rabbi at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London, wrote last week about the Hebrew word for sacrifice: korban, meaning to come near, to approach, “to become closely involved in a relationship with another”. In this light, Christ’s sacrifice can be seen in a direct line from the animal sacrifices in the Temple. When these were not corrupt substitutions for closeness to God, they were affairs that, for the Jews, combined the seriousness of death with the joy of being in God’s presence.
Although Christ’s death was technically an extra-judicial killing, the Early Church, by drawing Christ’s actions at the Last Supper into its rituals, emphasised this notion of sacrifice. St John has Caiaphas pronounce: “It is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.” St Paul, whose thoughts on most of Christ’s teaching are unrecorded, has much to say about his purpose: bringing humanity closer to God through his life and death. It is the eucharist rather than the cross, however powerful a visual symbol, that conveys the fullness of God’s action. For the story must be told to its end: through the resurrection to the ascension of our “great high priest”. Not a giving up, but a taking up.