Every five or six year, the calendar plays a bit of a trick on us. No fewer than five of the Sundays in Ordinary Time will be pushed aside this year in favor of Solemnities and Feasts of the Lord which will supersede them. This coming Sunday is one of those times. We will celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord on Sunday, February 2. This day, also known as Groundhog Day in secular culture, has been called by two other different liturgical names; namely, the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Candlemas. On this day, the Church pauses to bless the candles we will use as part of our liturgical worship picking up on the theme of "Jesus, the light for the nations" which we will hear proclaimed in the Gospel of St. Luke.
As I look at all three of the readings for this liturgy, a different word strikes me; namely, sacrifice. The prophet Malachi proclaims an oracle in which God states that a divine messenger will come to the Temple and will offer a sacrifice of justice. The Letter to the Hebrews asks us to consider that God suffered for the sake of our sins, sacrificing the life of Jesus to redeem us. The Gospel story tells us that Joseph and Mary came to the Temple to offer the sacrifice prescribed by the Law of Moses upon the birth of the first-born male.
I suspect that we all have an idea of what a sacrifice is. We have all made a sacrifice or two in our lifetimes. Parents sacrifice for the sake of their children. Men and women both make sacrifices for their jobs. By their vows, religious voluntarily give up what most people would consider a normal way of life in favor of a life of chastity, poverty and obedience. What is it that we are actually doing?
The ancient world looked at their situation and discerned that there were two separate realms in the created universe. There was the physical world in which they lived and the ideal world in which the various pantheons of the gods and goddesses lived. They also discerned that while their world was chaotic and unpredictable, the realm of the gods was well-ordered and deliberate. In order to connect the two, the ancient peoples felt that they could establish a connection between the two realms by offering the gods the best of the gifts they had received from the gods. They did this by slaughtering livestock and, in some instance, human beings as a sacrifice to the gods. Even the Hebrew people practiced such bloody sacrifices although they did not offer human beings as sacrifices. The reasoning that prevails in this mindset states that all of creation belongs to God. So by giving back that which God had given them, they were expressing their belief that God was the Master of the Universe.
The Law of Moses provided a way for the Israelites to offer their first-born male children without sacrificing them. In recognition of the fact that the gift of a male child was really more than they deserved, the Law provided that the Israelites should return the gift to the Lord. However, the Law also provided that they could redeem the life of the child by offering a sacrifice instead. For a poor family, the sacrifice was a pair of doves or pigeons.
Jesus' life was redeemed by this sacrifice. However, as the Letter to the Hebrews states most clearly, Jesus redeemed us by offering that very life through his crucifixion. We participate in that sacrificial death each and every time that we offer the Eucharist on our altars. Recognizing that the Eucharist is a gift which we scarcely deserve, we offer the body and blood of Jesus to the Father as a sacrifice.
This sacrifice gives meaning to all the other sacrifices which we make in our lives. We offer something to God, realizing that the gift with which we have been blessed are not deserved or earned. They are pure gifts. By returning them to the Father, we bring the power of the Eucharist into our daily lives.
Members of CUSA offer the sacrifice of their own suffering for the sake of the Church and the various intentions which have been asked of us. As we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation, we have an opportunity to reflect on the power of those sacrifices in the light of the supreme sacrifice that Jesus made for us.