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I mentioned earlier that I have been reading Surprised by Christ. I’ll save a full review for later, but for now I want to mention one section of the book that has really clicked for me: the comparison of the Jewish view of sacrifice to the Christian view of sacrifice.  You likely already know the prevailing Christian view of sacrifice as it pertains to Jesus: He was a sacrifice for us. He died for our sins, in place of us so that we might live. The prevailing Western view (both Protestant and Catholic) is that of substitutionary atonement: “Christ is a sacrifice by God on behalf of humanity, taking humanity’s penalty for sin upon himself, and propitiating God’s wrath. In other words, God imputed the guilt of our sins to Christ, and he, in our place, bore the punishment that we deserve.” When one accepts this kind of view, it’s hard (impossible?) not to see God the Father as an angry God who can only be appeased through death of either us or His perfect Son. The Orthodox view – both Christian and Jewish – is entirely different. God doesn’t punish us for our sin; instead He rescues us from it.

The Orthodox idea of atonement is portrayed in the Paschal hymn, “Christ has risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” As the hymn indicates, Christ’s death and resurrection mean that He has defeated death and has set humanity free.  But why is this accomplished through death on a cross? Why was He made a sacrifice for us, especially if we are not espousing the juridical substitutionary atonement idea? One reason is that while sacrifice does not change God (as is indicated in substitutionary atonement), sacrifice does changes us. Fr. James writes:

As I researched the subject, I discovered an essential aspect of the sacrificial system described in the Old Testament: the outer act of sacrifice should reflect the inner state of the offerer seeking personal reconciliation with God. The goal of the sacrifice was to gain interior cleansing and change of heart, not to change God. This contrasts with the pagan view, in which the efficacy of the sacrifice is not at all dependent on the state of the individual offering it. Its purpose is not to change the state of the offerer, but to appease and change the deity… [the pagan] goal has a materialistic and utilitarian motivation; its goal is not to gain interior change, healing or love, but instead to gain control over other people and objects.

Fr. James goes on to identify three purposes of sacrifice in the Bible:

  1. Sacrifice was viewed as a gift. There were many kinds of sacrifices that the ancient Hebrews offered (animal, fruit, grain, wine, incense) but what was really important was that the offering was made with the knowledge that the repentant offerer was returning to God what was already His. A verbal confession of specific sins often accompanied the offering (Leviticus 5:5, 6, 13 – a very interesting precursor to the Christian rite of confession).
  2. Sacrifice was viewed as a form of communion. The sacrifice was never meant to be substitutionary (again, a contrast with pagan practices). The portion of the sacrifice that was burned was thought to be consumed by God, and the remainder was often eaten by the offerer and the priest. This aspect of sacrifice is also present in the Christian understanding of the Eucharist.
  3. Sacrifice provides expiation. Here’s what I discussed earlier: sacrifice is not meant to appease God (propitiation) but rather to create a change in the offerer (expiation). For the Jews, offering a sacrifice was an act of self-denial and an aspect of purification. This expiatory view of sacrifice is a commonality between Judaism and Orthodox Christianity. Both are different from the Western propitiatory view.

Fr. James further explains:

When Orthodox read a verse like ‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures’ (1 Corinthians 15:3), it is understood to mean that Christ died for us – to heal us, to change us, to make us more godlike – not that He died instead of us. The ultimate purpose of His death is to change us, not to avert the wrath of God.

This view of sacrifice has been revolutionary for me in many ways. One (of several) things that it is helping me to understand is why Orthodox Christians are so big on living sacrificial lives. Orthodox Christian sacrifice free time to go to church and to pray, sacrifice resources through alms giving, sacrifice many types of food during the many fasts, etc. It’s not that God is pleased when we don’t eat meat or dairy on certain days of the week, instead it is that we are a stretched and challenged and changed by making this sacrifice; it’s an act of self-denial and a type of purification as we reject our desires and die to our passions. Believe it or not, it is quite effective.

Fr. James closes this chapter of his book with a quote from St. Anthony the Great (fourth century): “God is good, dispassionate, and immutable. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, it is possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honor Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honor Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.”

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