Prayer as Sacrifice

We are true worshipers and true priests. We pray in spirit, and so offer in spirit the sacrifice of prayer. Prayer is an offering that belongs to God and is acceptable to him: it is the offering he has asked for, the offering he planned as his own.

We must dedicate this offering with our whole heart, we must fatten it on faith, tend it by truth, keep it unblemished through innocence and clean through chastity, and crown it with love. We must escort it to the altar of God in a procession of good works to the sound of psalms and hymns. Then it will gain for us all that we ask of God.

— Tertullian, Treatise on Prayer

Each year, the senior religion classes visit a Hindu temple, a Jewish synagogue, a Moslem mosque, and a Buddhist monastery. I remember from a couple years ago, the rabbi at the synagogue saying something about the destruction of the Temple in first century Jerusalem. After its destruction, the Jews could no longer offer animal sacrifices to God. What were they to do? It occurred to them that prayer was a form of sacrifice, a more sophisticated and evolved form. Prayer is how we offer ourselves to God. (See Micah 6:6-8)

Now for me, a citizen of the 21st century, my experiences are far removed from the idea of animal sacrifices. I understand and appreciate the metaphor, especially how Tertullian compares aspects of animal sacrifice with aspects of prayer: fatted calf with “fatten it on faith”, unblemished and clean with innocence and purity. But to be honest, I never really thought of prayer, especially my own prayer, as a sacrifice.

For me, prayer has always been relational, God and me, the Body of Christ and me, for those whom I pray for and God. To say that prayer is sacrificial seems to put prayer in a negative connotation, a burden. It makes prayer sound more obligatory and a requirement rather than stemming from love and genuine desire to be in relationship with God.

On one hand, to be in relationship with someone, anyone, even with God, choices must be made. Any choice involves in some sense a sacrifice because something must be given up to pursue the object of the choice. If I have a choice between A or B, and I choose A, then B is sacrificed for the choice of A. The experience of B is lost in order to gain A. Do I choose to be with this friend or stay home and watch TV? Do I choose to spend some of my time praying, that is being with God, or doing something else?

On the other hand, to give something to someone is also, in a sense, a sacrifice. The thing that I give to the other is no longer mine; it belongs to the other. My loss, their gain. If the thing is taken rather than freely given, then the loss will most likely be felt as painful. If the thing is freely given, then the “gift” may or may not be felt as a painful loss to the giver; it depends on the nature of the gift. I suppose that the more the gift is felt as painful or as a loss to the giver, the more the gift may be seen or felt in terms of sacrifice. Either way, regardless of feelings, giving is a sacrifice, a sign of love.

Giving and receiving is part of what it means to be in a relationship with another. That is how connections are made between people, between hearts, between us and God. That is how love is formed and strengthened. Taking does not build a positive relationship. It must be in the act of freely giving, and with the attitude of receiving, not taking, that love happens. God never takes. He patiently waits to receive us, to receive our prayers, our joys and sorrows, our hearts, our love.

The choice is yours. What are you going to choose?

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