Monday, January 19, 2015

The End of Sacrifice

There are very few cultures today that still practice animal sacrifice - slitting the throat of a lamb as an offering to God. Yet the core idea behind offering something to the Divine - whether it be flowers, fruits, incense, food, another life, or one's own life - lies at the very foundation of most religions. Our desire to be connected to something greater than ourselves - whether Nature, God, or the Spirit World - still comes to profound expression in these simple gestures of ritual reciprocity. That is one "end" of sacrifice.

Historically speaking, however, the "end" of sacrifice, at least in its Jewish and Christian contexts, came to pass because the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, commemorating their victory by erecting the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum, where it still stands today. They carried away the Temple's sacred objects - including the golden menorah and trumpets, pictured here - and murdered and enslaved thousands of Jews.

The Jewish sacrificial system of ritual-cultic atonement had existed in Jerusalem for a thousand years. Now, without the Temple, the sacrificial system was over. Without the Temple, the rabbis needed to reconstruct Judaism around the Torah in order to maintain the continuity of Jewish identity and practice. The destruction of the Temple meant something very different to most Christians. It was the fulfillment of prophecy, adivine vindication of Jesus. It supported the new idea that Jesus and his community were a Temple and his death was a blood sacrifice that replaced the Temple, which was now forever commemorated in the blood-sacrifice rites of the Eucharist. This supported the new idea that "Christianity" had replaced "Judaism" as true Israel. Now the end of sacrifice came to symbolize the end of an era and the Jews were part of that "old covenant."

For 2,000 years, rabbinical Jews have mourned the loss of the Temple. Today, many look forward to the day when a Third Temple might be erected, although others  - especially Reform Jews - do not think that the ancient sacrificial system prescribed in the Torah should be re-instituted. But we all still use the language of sacrifice to describe acts of noble dedication to a higher purpose. Mothers and fathers "sacrifice" for their children. Soldiers "sacrifice" for their countries. We do this because the word "sacrifice" means "to make sacred," "to sanctify," and conveys that something has been offered, dedicated to a higher, nobler purpose. In this sense, then, "sacrifice" has never come to an "end."