Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Hebrews 13:15
In 1920, the Rev. C. J. Smith, then Dean of Pembroke College, Cambridge addressed the First Anglo-Catholic Congress of The Church of England on the history and theology of the sacrifice of the altar. He concluded his presentation with the following prescient observation:
So long as the central act of Christian devotion is thought of only or principally as a means of receiving, so long will religion be centered upon self. But let that central act be recognized as an act of worship and offering and sacrifice, and Christian life, which draws its inspiration and its power from the altar, will more and more become a life which is offered, a life which is made a living sacrifice, a life whose object is not self but God.
Now, more than 90 years later, Holy Eucharist is the principle act of worship among most Anglican churches, which would not have been the case at the time that Dean Smith was making his presentation, but the renewed emphasis on the Eucharist has happened in precisely the one-sided manner which the good dean feared: we think of our worship as a place where we go to get something, not where we go to give something.
Time and again I hear people make comments about “not getting anything” out of church. While I am very sympathetic to people wanting to avoid bad preaching or bad liturgy, having a spiritually edifying experience on Sunday morning might be more dependent on what we are prepared to give than what we are expecting to get. If we aren’t getting anything out of our worship of God, the real problem might be that we aren’t putting anything into it. Maybe it is time for us to start getting less out of our worship.
From the beginning of the book of Genesis to the end of the book of Revelation, the central theme in the human worship of God has been sacrifice. The ritual of sacrifice has taken different forms and the object being sacrificed has varied, but our worship of God has been nonetheless, sacrificial. The supreme sacrifice was that of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross, which the church has traditionally believed, is made present to us, or re-presented in the sacrifice of the altar or the Mass. Christ does not re-suffer or die anew each time we say Mass, but his “one oblation of himself once offered” is made present to us through his very real presence in the bread and wine on the altar. His sacrifice becomes our sacrifice as he is laid upon our altars.
The sacrifice of Christ is the supreme offering to God, but that does not mean that we are thereby exempted from offering anything ourselves. We offer God our money, we offer God our service, and, most importantly, we offer God our praise. Routinely taking the time to stop and pay attention to God is a sacrifice that we are called to make, not because we expect to receive something in return as payment, but in recognition and thanks for the life that the author of life has already given us.
Our sacrifices can never attain the glory of the sacrifice of Christ, but that does not, I think, make them any less precious in God’s sight. Have you ever received a handmade gift or drawing from your child? They aren’t always the most beautiful things in the world, but to a loving parent they are priceless. So it is with our sacrifices: God’s doesn’t really need them, and they can never be perfect, but they are dear to him nonetheless.
Our modern culture has become far more consumerist than Dean Smith would probably even have imagined and predictably that consumerist culture has bled into our church culture as well. People come to church with the expectation of getting something, not doing something. The idea of sacrifice is becoming more and more foreign to people and the result is a faith that is increasingly centered on self and far less centered on God.
Christ’s sacrifice was an act of giving. It is a truly wonderful and great thing that Christ offers himself to us through the sacrament, and it is a good and devout practice to receive him regularly; but if we are to be Christ-like as Christians then our supreme act of worship should be a reflection of his: it should be an act of giving.
Let us not shy away from speaking of sacrifice in our worship of God; let us emphasize it. Let us remember that we are called to make offerings to God as acts of praise and thanksgiving for the life that we have been given. Let us worry less about what we are getting from our worship and think more about what we are putting into it. In so doing we just may discover that the true power and grace of the Christian life comes more from what we put on the altar, than from what we take off of it.
It’s time we got less out of our worship, and allowed our worship to give God more.