“Sacrifice or Gift?” -Rev. Robert McCluskey

Sacrifice: To make holy. In the Old Testament, sacrifices related to purification from, and atonement for, sin. One gave up something, offered something of value that would remove the guilt of their sin: they would pay the debt, satisfy the anger of God, and restore themselves, or the community, to unity and wholeness with God.

Generally, the sacrifices (usually some type of animal, or other valuable commodity of the time) were “offered up” by fire or transfer: they would either be burned, with the idea that they could then ascend to be received by God, or they would be donated for use in the temple. This is how they were “made holy.” The underlying assumption here is that of God as a judge who demands payment for transgressions.

For the first Christian Church, all the sacrifices of the Old Testament are replaced by the sacraments of baptism and communion. Baptism represented the cleansing and purifying practices of the Old Testament, and communion (the body given and the blood shed) represented the guilt and sin offerings made at the temple. We note here that, just as sacrifice means to make holy, so a sacrament is that “thing” which makes something holy: the instrument or means of grace.

But there is also an important difference between sacrifices and sacraments. In the case of the sacrament of communion, the idea is that the sacrifice is made for us. Here the concepts of sacrifice and gift are intimately linked, although the emphasis is still on sacrifice as a form of payment to one who demands it.

In this way, the sacrament of communion acquired the name Eucharist, which means charity or grace. Here the emphasis is on the gift of the Lord’s sacrifice on our behalf, so that we might avoid the guilt and punishment of our sins. And so for the Roman Catholic Church, the sacrament of communion is the recreation of the sacrifice, in which we participate by consuming the bread and wine. It is in this way a means of divine grace.

There are several negative results of this understanding of communion as a sacrifice made for us: To begin with, the crucifixion is seen as a vicarious atonement for our sins. Despite its message of freedom and salvation, the cross becomes the source of feelings of guilt and shame associated with what Jesus did for us, and our (impossible) efforts to “pay him back.” (Note the irony: that which is supposed to free us from guilt makes us feel guilty). It is observed as a unique event that occurred in the distant past. Its power remains shrouded in mystery, as modern communicants try to connect the eating of bits of bread and drops of wine with their own spiritual well-being.

There is confusion, and even divisive arguments, over just who can and cannot participate in and receive communion. Finally, the practice is understood more and more literally, so that eventually, just participating in the external act itself becomes paramount: did you receive communion today? In all of this, the emphasis remains on sacrifice as suffering, deprivation, doing without; as payment to a demanding judge. Ideas that take on concrete form in the dark season of lent.

The New Church understanding of sacraments is totally distinct, but not totally unrelated to traditional interpretations. Remember, the New Church is concerned not with providing a new schema for salvation, but with a new interpretation of the same schema/images. As Helen Keller wrote, “Swedenborg did not make a new Bible; he made the Bible all new.”* Here the meaning of communion emphasizes the gift of life; the gift of new power available to us through the Divine Humanity, and the role of sacrifice is recast ( in Arcana Coelestia §349, all sacrifices are called “gifts”).

This is, in fact, easily done. Let’s begin again with the concept of sacrifice: to make holy; that is, to transform, raise up, “improve,” make spiritual. Notice that there is nothing here about giving up something that we like in a suffering, pathetic fashion. The negative sense of sacrifice is replaced with the positive sense of spiritual growth; it is our own proprium qualities that need to be purified by the fire of God’s love, purified and transformed, “sacrificed.”

Swedenborg writes that “the entire process of regeneration, as well as the glorification of the Lord’s humanity, is described by the sacrifices and burnt offerings, and is made manifest, when the representations are unfolded by the internal sense.” (TCR) That is, the meaning of sacrifice has to do with spiritual growth, our unity with God, as well as the new unity of the divine and human in Jesus; and, this meaning remains hidden from us without the internal sense of the Word, without exploring the Word as a living, spiritual document.

In the New Church, communion, like baptism, is a correspondentially symbolic act: it is not a mere symbol (as in an image of something that happened long ago), nor does it have a strictly utilitarian function (as in the special power that consecrated bread and wine are supposed to have); rather, it is an act which binds together our inner and outer lives in the here and now. Its power is not magical, or beyond our ability to understand; its power is the power of God to open and free us to love, truth, and the ways of the spirit. It is an opportunity to enter into life with eyes open, with understanding, with commitment and awareness of who we really are. Whenever we enter into life with such integrity, we are empowered and put in touch with deeper, more real levels of our being. The simple act of eating and drinking are essential parts of life, and it is in this highly focused and concentrated activity of life that we have the opportunity to exercise such integrity and awareness.

So, sacrifices, including communion, are images of regeneration, and are not real, authentic, “manifest,” until we make what they represent a part of our actual lives. We have all heard that love is powerless without wisdom. Another way to say this is that we must understand our lives if we are too ultimately find them good and worth celebrating. The same is true for our experience of communion: without understanding it, we cannot truly celebrate it.

“Iit has pleased the Lord to reveal the spiritual sense of the Word, to enable this church to enter into the real use and benefit of these sacraments, baptism and the holy supper; and this is done when men, with the eyes of the spirit, that is, with the understanding see the holiness that is concealed within them, and apply it to themselves by the means which the Lord has taught in His Word […]. Without the opened spiritual sense of the Word, or what is the same, without a revelation of the correspondence of natural with spiritual things, the holiness of the sacrament here treated of can no more be interiorly recognized than the existence of a treasure hidden in a field.”

-True Christian Religion §700, 701**

We need only recall here that all the Jewish sacrifices involve natural things: animals, plants, fire, water, etc. Once we have been exposed to correspondences, sacrifices and sacraments can never be the same: their literal force is removed and their spiritual power revealed.

Swedenborg goes on to point out that a sacrament is nothing else than “a binding”; the comparison is also made to the bond formed by taking an oath. [Arcana Coelestia 3046] We saw earlier that the word sacrament is a variation on the word sacrifice: both refer to the process or means of making something holy. In a similar way, communion is a variation on the word binding or conjunction: the act of sharing, participation; mutual intercourse; a body of Christians sharing a common faith. Here, the sacrament of communion (binding) links the idea of sacrifice (to make holy); both involve a state of unity with God and other people.

“The Lord is present and opens heaven to those who approach the Holy Supper worthily, and is also present with those who approach unworthily, but to them He does not open heaven. Consequently, as Baptism is and introduction into the Church, so is the Holy Supper an inintroduction into heaven. The Lord is present with both the worthy and the unworthy because he is omnipresent both in heaven and in hell, and also in the world, consequently with the evil as well as the good. But with the good, the regenerate, he is present both universally and individually, externally and internally; for the Lord is in them and they are in him, and where he is there is heaven. But the Lord’s presence with those who come to the holy supper unworthily is His universal and not His individual presence, or what is the same, His external and not also His internal presence. His universal or external presence is what causes a man to live as a man, to enjoy the ability to know, to understand, and to speak rationally from the understanding; for man is born for heaven, and is therefore not merely natural, like a beast, but also spiritual. He also enjoys the ability to will and to do the things that from his understanding he is able to know about, to understand, and thereby rationally speak about.”

True Christian Religion §719

But when such individuals choose to reject truly rational and spiritual ideas, and not make them a part of their life, they remain separated from God, and incapable of receiving the life of heaven. For them, communion is an empty, even superstitious ritual. 

The Lord is indeed present in the sacrament of communion, but is received only by those who truly desire heaven. Sacrifices are only genuine to the extent that they reflect an inner attitude (belief and value system) that corresponds to them. Again, the idea of a gift is evident: but it is a gift that we must choose, in freedom, to accept: it doesn’t just come to us, but must be received by us. This business of our reception of God’s gift has nothing to do with something having been done for us, and everything to do with something being made available to us.

In short, a literal or external understanding of communion leads to the concept of sacrifice, of something be done for us; a spiritual or internal understanding of that same event leads to the concept of gift, of something made available to us. Communion remains an act of remembrance; not of a historical event, but of God’s gracious love, which is available to us right now, something we so easily forget.

“All the expiation which was effected through washings, burnt offerings and sacrifices, represented the purification of the heart from evils and falsities, thus regeneration.”

-Secrets of Heaven §9959***

As we have indicated, Swedenborg rejects the idea that Christ’s death was a substitutionary sacrifice, a vicarious atonement for our sins. Instead, he makes the point that Christ’s death, as his final temptation combat, led to a new unity of the Divine and Human within the Lord. The emphasis is not on sacrifice per se, but on the Lord’s glorification, and the new power that is available to us through the Divine Humanity of the Lord, capable of uniting heaven and earth, inner and outer, nature and spirit within us. This is completely distinct form the idea of an angry and vengeful Father God who is satisfied by the brutal death of his innocent Son. (In this regard, Swedenborg points out that implicit in Roman Catholic use of sacraments is a trinity of gods. (TCR §177) The God of infinite love and compassion has no use for such sacrifices; better is the sacrifice of our proprium, our lower self, in favor of the Lord’s presence within and around us. Christ’s death is seen not as the end of a innocent human life, but the beginning of a new life in God, the union of the Divine and Human, and the gift of life to those who choose it.

There is an ambiguity to the concepts of sacrifice and gift which reflects our dual nature, and we need to know which level of our mind we are trying to understand them from. From the perspective of the proprium, our lower self, sacrifice means giving something up that we like or hold dear. This is the perspective represented by the Jewish and First Christian churches: that is to say, this is how the proprium interprets God’s efforts to purify and renew us: it’s like losing our lives.

From that same perspective, a gift means receiving something we like or want: someone to take away our guilt for us is one such gift highly desired by the proprium. But our higher, spiritual self understands these two concepts quite differently. From this perspective, sacrifice means to give up something that is not good for us, so that we may find our true, inner life. And a gift refers to receiving something we need: God’s Divine Love and Wisdom, made available to us through the Divine Human, the visible God in whom is the invisible. This is one gift for which the spiritual self can be truly grateful.

*Keller, Helen. My Religion. West Chester: Swedenborg Foundation. 2007.

**Swedenborg, Emanuel. The True Christian Religion. Translated by Ager, John Curtis. New York: American Swedenborg printing and Publishing Society. 1910.

***Swedenborg, Emanuel. Arcana Coelestia. Translated by John Potts. West Chester: Swedenborg Foundation. 1998.

Rev. Robert McCluskey, B.A., M.A., is a graduate of the Swedenborg School of Religion, and was ordained into the Swedenborgian Church of North America in 1984.

Rev. McCluskey has pastored Swedenborgian churches in Portland, Maine and New York City, and for 17 years served as Swedenborgian representative to the National Council of Churches. 

He currently serves Wayfarer’s Chapel, the National Monument to Emanuel Swedenborg, in Rancho Palos Verdes, California.

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