I've just got back from a period of annual leave. One of the things I did on that leave was attend my nephew's first birthday party. This was fabulous, involving substantial amounts of cake and a marathon session of pass-the-parcel. And, of course, presents. Lots of presents.
Giving presents is deeply human. We give presents in recognition of special events, birthdays and anniversaries. We give gifts as a way of saying 'thank you'. We give presents to say sorry - think of the bunch of flowers sheepishly bought the day after the forgotten wedding anniversary. We give presents to say "I need you", "I love you", or "I miss you". In all these circumstances, the gift is a way of showing our concern for another person, our regard for them. We give gifts as a sign of giving ourselves.
Just as human beings give one another presents, so throughout history people have given gifts to God (or to the gods). These gifts are what we call sacrifices, and they have been given for much the same reasons that we give presents to each other: in celebration of festivals, in thanksgiving, in atonement for wrongdoing, in prayer for a special need, and so on. Day by day, year by year, in most human societies sacrifices have been offered. And, as human societies evolved, a class of people emerged whose job it was to do this - the priests. The People of God we read about in the Old Testament were no exception to this: God called priests to offer sacrifice. In time, the Temple at Jerusalem became the place where this happened.
This was all a thoroughly good thing. It is good to want to worship God, to recognise our dependence on him, our need to give thanks and the reality of sins for which we need to atone. Sacrifice is a human move to act in recognition of these things, and to the extent that human beings lack the desire to sacrifice, they lack something importantly human. In actual fact, I doubt that even in our secularising society there are many people who lack the desire to sacrifice - it is just that they many offer themselves up to things like the market, their career, their immediate pleasure, the nation or the State, a phenomenon for which the biblical word is 'idolatory'.
But for all that it is genuinely good, there is a problem with sacrifice. You see, when I offer a gift to another human being I do so - if my gift is genuine - within a context of fundamental equality. The other person can reciprocate my gift, and I theirs. The exchange of gifts takes place as part of an ongoing relationship within a shared world. I am the same sort of thing as the person who gives me a gift, and I can respond in kind.
Sacrifice is a different matter. There is an absolute absence of natural equality between human beings and God, and there is no natural possibility that we live in a shared world together. God is beyond us, and beyond our comprehension. No matter how many sacrifices I offer, I will never establish the kind of relationship with God that I celebrate in more everyday human gift-givings. My sacrifices will always fall short of God. More than that, they will always somehow miss the point. They will certainly never be enough: So even though, as today's reading from the epistle to the Hebrews reminds us, the high priests offered sacrifices daily, their constant gifts were never enough.
But that reading tells us something else: we have a new high priest, Jesus. And he offers a sacrifice to God that is acceptable. He offers himself, his entire life was one of self-offering to the Father, a self offering that continues now he is ascended into Heaven, "he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues for ever."
The difference with Jesus is that he can offer to God on an equal basis. In Jesus, the Son of the Father, who eternally offers praise to the Father, takes a human life, and in human form offers himself to God as an equal. He can do this because he is equal with the Father. He is, as we say in the Creed, "God from God.. of one being with the Father".
Jesus' sacrifice offers to the Father what we could never offer by nature. Through him, to whom we are united in our baptism, we can offer praise and thanksgiving, we can ask with confidence for our sins to be forgiven, and we can bring our concerns in prayer. Above all we do this at Mass, at the Eucharist. Every Mass is a true sacrifice. Not a different sacrifice from the sacrifice Jesus offered once and for all, but the same sacrifice made present for us. At Mass Jesus comes to us, present in the Blessed Sacrament, and because Jesus' whole existence is a self-offering to the Father, he offers himself with us, through us, and for us. We come with our daily concerns, our hopes, our fears, and our needs, and we offer them to the Father. Here we find fulfilled that natural human desire to offer sacrifice adequately. In a famous passage, the great Anglican Benedictine Dom Gregory Dix, meditates on Jesus' command 'Do this in remembrance of me":
Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetich because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc—one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei—the holy common people of God.