A Season for Sacrifice

crossRedVeil1Lent is the season when we think of making sacrifices, usually small ones, like giving up a pleasure or two. This Lent, we have been called upon to make many large sacrifices because of the COVID-19 virus. The social distancing needed to slow the spread of the disease entails giving up many very good things that we take for granted. I can’t even go out and get a haircut when I need one. The disappointments through canceled events are many. For me, it’s a concert I was looking forward to and, more disappointing, a speaking engagement where I was going to present a paper I had worked on for many hours. I’m sure many others have had greater disappointments than that. It must be hard, for example for children not to be able to play freely with their friends and to be separated from grandparents. One of the greatest renunciations for committed Christians is, ironically, Church. Usually, going to Church is something one increases during Lent, but the social distancing called for right now has worshipers staying home and making do with online services. I would think this would make worship a self-emptying process as the familiar sacred space and the people one is usually with would not be there except on a computer screen.

We do not necessarily choose to give up these things. When concerts are cancelled, for example, one doesn’t have the option of going. Bishops around the country ordered the cancellation of in-person services before most state governors had issued executive orders. The only choice is to be a reasonably good sport about it. Or not. We may grieve the things we lose during this time, but we can take comfort in the assurance that these renunciations are saving lives, maybe even one’s own. Thinking of others in this way lightens the load that comes of focusing on our own losses. Greater than the sacrifices of social distancing are the sacrifices of those who are risking their health and possibly their lives to serve others during this time. Medical workers top the list. True, these people entered these professions expecting to make sacrifices for others, even if not in so intense a fashion. But people stocking shelves in grocery stores or working elsewhere in the food chain are also risking themselves and these are not jobs one normally expects to be so risky. Then there are those who lay down their lives. One example I’ve heard of is a priest in Bergamo. His parishioners had bought a lung ventilator for him, but he gave it to a younger man who was dying. Not even his body was recovered in the midst of the mass burials.

In such times of stress, there are some who opportunistically seek to profit instead. The selling of needed medical equipment for many times their wealth is a tragic example of this. There is also talk about sacrificing human lives to save the economy, a notion that makes The Economy loom like a deity requiring sacrifices. I don’t mean to minimize the economic impact of the COVID-19 virus and the need for careful balancing of economic peril with that of the disease. I am calling for a deep concern for the lives of all people. In all this, there is the fundamental choice of whether we will make sacrifices of ourselves as needed or will prefer to sacrifice other people. This is a fundamental choice we face all the time, but the current crisis adds urgency to it.

The Great Sacrifice of Jesus who died on the cross makes it quite clear that God is in the business of self-sacrifice and is certainly not a deity that requires sacrifices of others. And yet, as our model, self-sacrifice is what is asked of us because of what Jesus did for us and continues to for us all the time. During this season, we are reminded of those who made a sacrifice of Jesus, oblivious of the sacrifice Jesus was making for us and even for them, if they could accept it. The love that motivates Jesus is awesome, beyond our comprehension. If we even begin to tap in to this love, we come to see for ourselves that it is the way, not to glory, but the way of glory.

Abraham out on Highway 61

sideAltarsIcons1The near-sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham, the Father of Faith, is the most troubling of stories. It should be. Chaim Potok’s young protagonist Asher Lev remembers the shiver he felt when he first heard the story. What is most troubling is the suspicion that Abraham was right to be willing to sacrifice his son. But was he? Jeremiah says Yahweh denounced the sacrifice of children, saying “that such a thing had never entered my mind.” (Jer. 19:5) Perhaps we are right to be troubled by any notion that Abraham was right to even let the idea enter his mind and even more troubled by any thought it ever entered into God’s mind.

Bob Dylan makes a bitter burlesque of the story in his song “Highway 61 Revisited.” The “god” who requires the sacrifice is a bully, warning Abraham that if he doesn’t comply: “Next time you see me, you’d better run.” To the question: “Where do you want to see this killing done? God said out on Highway 61”, the place for “a thousand telephones that don’t ring” and where to “put some bleachers out in the sun” to stage the start of the next world war. As with so many Dylan songs, the imagery reveals a society filled with mimetic rivalry and victimization where sacrifice and war become a spectator sport.

Soren Kierkegaard’s searing Fear and Trembling is at least as troubling as the biblical story. SK’s category of the “teleological suspension of the ethical” raises fears that the author celebrates Abraham’s willingness to do the deed. (What the fancy phrase means is: anything at all God says to do is right—end of story.) However, this troublesome category is coupled with what SK called “infinite resignation.” This is what Abraham had when he was willing to kill his son by God’s command. However, infinite resignation falls far short of faith and faith is what the biblical story and SK’s book is all about. Faith is receiving back what is given with infinite resignation “by virtue of the absurd.” Still troubled?

The most clear and piercing critique of this “infinite resignation” I know of comes in the powerful poem retelling this story by the World War I poet Wilfred Owen. Abraham builds parapets and trenches around the wood, suggesting the sacrifice of sons sent off to the war. But when the angel of the Lord admonishes Abraham to “slay the ram of pride instead of him . . . the old man would not so, but slew his son,/ and half the seed of Europe one by one.” This poet, one of many young victims of the war, and the creator of the bitter irony that poets like Bob Dylan use so well, has revealed once and for all the sacrificial horror of “infinite resignation.” That is, anyone infinitely resigned to sacrifice oneself without faith will also sacrifice others, especially one’s own children, also without faith.

The typological interpretation of the story where it stands for God the Father’s being willing to sacrifice His only begotten son is also troubling. But Jesus did not go to the cross with infinite resignation. Rather, by “virtue of the absurd,” he believed that God, being the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was God, not of the dead, but of the living.” (Mt. 22:32) St. Paul says we are saved by the faith of Christ, the faith that, on the cross, embraced not death, but the life of his heavenly father. The virtuous absurd, then, is the ecstatic embrace of God’s love so filled with life that there is no room for death for anybody.

Beyond Oblivion

crucifix1Anthony Horowitz’s five volume series called variously The Power of Five or The Gatekeepers is a far deeper and interesting read than his many volumes about a teen spy doing impossible stunts without benefit of superpowers. The cosmology is roughly is one where there is apparently no religious reality, such as a creator and/or redeemer god, but there are powerful beings who wish only to destroy and they wish to destroy our world. They are, however, dependent on humans evil enough to help them, such as members of a witch’s coven, embittered apostate monks, and rapacious financial magnates. Meanwhile, in a vaguely defined transcendent “dream” world there are beings or some beneficent force that sends five young saviors to our planet and works out a plan for defeating the “old ones” definitively.  It turns out that these five teens have counterparts (alternate selves?) who lived ten thousand years earlier and each is interchangeable with his or her counterpart in the event of the death of one of them. Such a substitution allowed for a victory in the past. I am going to focus on the ending of the series in the final book Oblivion which is a powerful read, even as it raises some serious questions.  I hereby issue a SPOILER ALERT for those who prefer to read the book before reading my comments. By the beginning of the last book, the “old ones” have broken through and destroyed the world. The five teens have to stop and reverse the destruction. At the end, Matt Freeman, the leader of the group, reads his life story in a library in the dream world which tells him the plan, horrifying as it is. What it boils down to is putting himself into the hands of the enemies in their fortress in Antarctica so they can exact their revenge on him by torturing him for several millennia, all the while depending on a journalist who has befriended him from the beginning to sneak him and kill him swiftly. Matt’s death brings in Matt’s counterpart while another boy, who had betrayed the cause, gives his life to open a time warp to bring the group together to defeat the “old ones” for good. Although Christianity is not shown to have any reality in the series, a Christian can certainly see a Christ-like act of renunciation in the self-sacrificing death of Matt and for the betrayer as well. There is a sense of providence, if not divine, in the plan. By hindsight, it is the only plan that could have worked. The “old ones” were so blinded by a lust for revenge that they left themselves open to being defeated by teens with dedication they can never understand. It is a powerful illustration of how love, not power, is the only way to defeat such evil. The ending is disturbing in that the surviving teens celebrate and return to the dream world while the ones who made sacrifices are just plain gone, unless the dead boys live in their counterparts in some way. Of course, if the world really is a world where such acts of renunciation give only the satisfaction of making this act of sacrifice, than that is the best one can do. Emmanuel Kant based his ethics on this level of disinterestedness where one sought no reward for doing the right thing. There is something noble about this, but if the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the loving God embodied by Jesus, than there is a far greater good and glory that sustains such a disinterested sacrifice.