|A scene from Leonie Caldecott's "The Quality of Mercy"|
We sacrifice something good, or enjoyable – we give it up – not as a punishment for sin, and not merely to demonstrate our obedience, but in order to obtain something better. Or rather, to make room in ourselves for something better that we hope for. Why get rid of something? To make room for something else. We give up food, or sleep, or sex, for the sake of something better – a sense of divine presence, or a more intimate union with God. We give up bad company in order to find good company. Naturally, as soon as we stop believing in that better thing, or its possibility, sacrifice will stop making sense to us.
It should be easy enough to explain, because this principle works in everyday life without any reference to religion at all. I give up snacks for the sake of slimming, I give up a lazy afternoon in order to exercise, I give up my favourite TV programme in order to spend time with someone who needs me. This implies that there are some goods and pleasures – feeling healthy, seeing a friend – that are qualitatively better, “higher”, than others. Extend the principle to include goods that are better yet, and types of happiness even more powerful and refined, and the notion of religious sacrifice suddenly makes perfect sense.
As we kneel at Mass, giving ourselves to God by identifying with the bread and wine that the priest is about to offer on the altar, we are emptying ourselves in order to receive a new self, the life of Christ which he pours out for us on the Cross and in the sacraments.