For our honeymoon, I planned a cathedral tour of northern France, but my wife requested that we visit the Normandy beachheads, where American forces stormed ashore 75 years ago this coming Thursday. I had visited there as a child with my family and thought that a honeymoon was meant for romance, not for war, but happily agreed to return to Normandy.
We splurged and stayed a night at a chateaux. Our bedroom had a feather bed where you sank two feet, and we nestled like little birds. The following morning, I drank coffee with the owner as he pointed to a map of the French coastline and said, “This is where the German guns are located.” “Are they still there,” I asked. “Yes,” he replied, and off we went to investigate.
We entered the cement bunkers and found the rusted canons. We walked in silence through an endless sea of white crosses at the American cemetery. We drove eight miles west to Pont du Hoc, where American Rangers scaled the cliffs using ladders and grappling hooks as German soldiers rained down machine gun fire. Inside the bunker was a metal plaque that read, “The 225 rangers fought two and one half days before relief. Ninety men survived the mission.”
This Thursday may be the last major anniversary of the D-Day Invasion where the few surviving veterans who fought can stand on the hallowed cliffs, walk on the beachheads and visit the cemeteries to pay homage to their fallen comrades who gave their lives for our freedom. On the fiftieth anniversary of the invasion, at an event designed to salute their heroism, President Bill Clinton said in his speech, “We are the children of your sacrifice.”
Journalist Tom Brokaw wrote a book called The Greatest Generation about the men and women who came of age in World War II. Three words best characterize this generation – duty, commitment and sacrifice. I read a book on preaching that said Baby Boomers see the world differently. They do not like these words. The book said, “Don’t use those words when you preach, or they won’t listen.” I wonder if it’s time to restore these words to our vocabulary and to our living and our giving of ourselves.
The word sacrifice appears 213 times in the Bible. It figures prominently in our eucharistic liturgy, in familiar hymns, in our faith and our theology. The Agnus Dei or Lamb of God is one of the great sacrificial symbols of Christianity found in stained-glass windows, embroidered on vestments, carved in pulpits, and even by choirs. Thousands of Christians died as martyrs having made the ultimate sacrifice for their faith. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13). Sacrifice is at the heart of our faith.
Of course, the theme of sacrifice is not peculiar to Christianity. It is fundamental to the beliefs and practices of most of the world’s great religions. It’s hard to unpack its meaning. There are ancient stories about ritual slaughter and cultic blood-letting to appease an angry deity, which repel us today. Some Christians portray Jesus’ death on the Cross as a ransom paid to God for our sin. John Calvin wrote:
God was the enemy of men until they were restored to favor by the death of Christ. They were cursed until their iniquity was expiated by the sacrifice of Christ.
Is Christ’s death a tit-for-tit transaction? What kind of God would demand a payment of blood and slaughter of his own Son? Is this how God engineers human salvation?
But far from being outmoded, the concept of sacrifice still speaks to us in this present age, because the power of a sacrifice is timeless, whether it be the sacrifices paid in Normandy or the sacrifice paid for us by Jesus. Science reveals that all life is dependent on death, and the survival of our species and our planet requires human self-limitation and self-denial. I read this week that China is the number one user of plastic bags and the biggest polluter of our oceans. How long can we humans continue to live like this, consuming, but never sacrificing?
The widespread pursuit of individual gratification and the cult of self-sufficiency will eradicate our species. We live in a world of instant gratification and conspicuous consumption, where sacrifice, limitation or postponement of selfish pleasures is viewed as undesirable or wrong. Ours is the “What I want I get generation.” Yet, great nations rise by service and sacrifice.
A recent survey found that while 43 percent of persons who never attend church agreed that the “main purpose of life is to fulfill yourself’, only 19 percent of regular churchgoers accepted that proposition. But as Bible reading, churchgoing and Sunday school attendance wain, it’s not surprising that Jesus’ words about denying ourselves and taking up the Cross have less appeal and less impact. We are editing “sacrifice” out of the script for living our lives.
Yet, we understand deep down the power of costly self-giving. Christianity consistently points out that growth and progress come only through self-limitation, surrender and sacrifice. Our faith is unique in that it’s the only religion that has death as a starting point. Our founding figure is a dead man on a cross. Yet, ours is life-affirming rather than life-denying faith. Jesus said, “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) Jesus was no killjoy, but rather he turned water into wine so that the wedding guests in Cana could enjoy themselves and the celebration could continue.
So, Christianity is paradoxical. It is both life affirming and self-denying. Jesus said that we find ourselves by losing ourselves in something outside ourselves. In doing so, we are liberated from the tyranny of being self-consumed, which is the essence of sin. There’s no smaller package than a completely self-focused human being. Sacrifice is the basis for joy and fulfillment for it is by giving up ourselves for God’s sake that we become whole and holy.
That’s what makes love the most profoundly sacrificial and most fulfilling human experience, because we lose ourselves in someone or something outside ourselves. George Matheson, a blind nineteenth century Scottish minister said, “There are four stages in the birth of the religious life: self-awakening, self-reflection, self-help and self-abandonment.” The latter may not sound easy, but Christianity is not an easy religion to follow. It challenges us to make sacrifices that we would not make on our own. St. Paul writes,
I appeal to you therefore… by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a
living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God… (Rom. 12:1)
Sacrifice is God’s power at work to make the world holy and whole. It is the love that suffers and the love that saves. It is the wounded healer who heals. The power of sacrifice comes from self-emptying and self-giving. For Augustine and St. Paul and the Church Fathers, all sacrifice is related to the supreme sacrifice on the Cross and a participation in it.
Acts of surrender, self-giving and sacrifice bring us in touch with our deepest selves and the profound holiness of life. They free us from the slavery of selfishness. Our sacrificial acts are rooted in God, who gives us the grace to go beyond ourselves for the sake of others.
No wonder polls to determine the world’s most admired figures consistently put those who have devoted themselves selflessly to others near the top of the list – St. Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela and Desmund Tutu. Their lives defy the me-first culture.
We can all think of examples close to home. I think of Bob, a member of my first church, who took such beautiful care of his wife, Peggy. She had Alzheimer’s and was confined to a wheelchair. Peggy was just a fraction of her former self. Once a week, one of Bob’s daughter’s came to sit with Peggy, so that her father could have a few hours to himself. Bob had sacrificed everything – his hobbies of playing golf and cards, his friendships and his free time – to care for his wife. Bob had nowhere to go, so he would come to church and sometimes sit in my office. “You’re a wonderful husband,” I said to Bob one day. “You take such great care of Peggy.” “I wasn’t always a great husband,” he replied. “I suppose I’m trying to make up for some of that by the way I care for her now.” Sacrifice and love go hand in hand.
Such care can only work if there is a reservoir of altruism and compassion in our society and in our hearts that allows us to heed our better angels and make important sacrifices. In the Book of Common Prayer we pray, “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto thee.”
Two and a half weeks into rehearsals for The Sound of Music, Oscar Hammerstein learned that he had stomach cancer. The day before his surgery, he handed Mary Martin a little slip of paper with a lyric that he hoped would be added to the production. It contained these words:
A bell is no bell till you ring it,
A song is no song until you sing it
And love in your heart wasn’t put there to stay,
Love isn’t love till you give it away.
We have lost the original sense of “sacrifice,” which is derived from two Latin words, sacer and facere – which mean “to make holy.” This is crucial to understanding it, for in every sacrifice we take a common object and move it to the realm of the religious. We consecrate it, and it becomes sacred or holy and it endures forever.
Thus, standing in the bunker atop the cliffs at Pont du Hoc, my wife, Mims, and I realized that we were on holy ground. We stood in awe and silence. The sacrifices made there would endure from generation to generation. I had that same experience while visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, built atop the hillside where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. As visitors stand in that place where Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for our sins as he died on the cross they are filled awe at the price that he paid for us. Perhaps it’s time to reintroduce the word “sacrifice” into our vocabulary and to our lives and to our giving. Amen.