Saturday, December 14, 2013

Writing Sacrifice into Postmodern Culture

In a recent video presentation on The Eucharist as Sacrifice, Fr. Robert Barron contextualizes 'sacrifice' within the culture of 1st century Palestine. He underscores how the biblical language of sacrifice is received in the religious communities of early Christianity. He also laments the results of his survey of Catholics who largely interpret the Lamb of God as a metaphor for Jesus' gentleness and meekness. He therefore puts in the strong corrective, that, for Jesus's contemporaries, the image of the Lamb could only mean the immolation of Jesus as a sacrifice unto the remission of sins through the agency of His own priesthood.

In colloquial English, 'sacrifice' has many meanings and usages: we can observe a sacrifice fly in baseball, the sacrifice of lab rats that prepares them  for study, the sacrifices some make to achieve their goals, the sacrifices parents might make to benefit their (usually ungrateful) children, the Lenten sacrifices of stuff that's probably not good for us anyway, the sacrifice of soldiers serving abroad during the holidays, and the ultimate sacrifice they might someday make. Sacrality eludes some of these metaphorical usages of 'sacrifice," others are perhaps more in step with it. Few Americans, upon hearing the term, think of the sacrifice on Calvary some 2000 years ago, and what that might have meant then or what that might mean today.

The postmodern turn often dislodges meaning from signs, and signifers from signifieds. This slippage is fundamental to the tenuousness of meaning in contemporary culture (I mean this in a purely descriptive way, and not at all prescriptively). Meanings are lost, found, altered, renewed, rebuilt. Meaning is as unreliable as the culture that creates it. But this postmodern fluidity is more akin to premodern sensibility than to modernism, which always pretends to certainty. It is fascinating that the earliest iconographic sign system of Jesus is not of his crucifixion, but that of a shepherd. In these images, Jesus is the first Christopher, as he bears his symbolic self on his own shoulders, the burden of his sacrificial destiny. It is perhaps ultimately the Johannine Jesus depicted here, the 'good shepherd' of Jn. 10. He is shepherd and lamb, God and man (cf. Ps. 23). I find it hopeful that the hypostatic union cannot be deconstructed, as the sign is uncannily irreducible, its signifier unfloatable.

The Divine Liturgy and Sacrifice of the Mass certainly is, as Scott Hahn has noted, the supper of the lamb. It is the sacred meal of the lamb, for the lamb, of the shepherd, for his flock. All the meanings of 'sacrifice' perichoretically mingle, without confusion, as those at the banquet sacrifice their embrace of all the petty evils that distance them from God, placing them on the shoulders of the lamb, who takes them away. The liturgical and sacramental re-presentation of the event at Calvary has many effects, but one of its more profound effects is the transhistorical sweeping of those participating to the foot of the Cross. The victim is the same, as is the event, as is its finality: one sacrifice, once and for all.  It is a violent effect, perhaps nearly lethal: this very disruption of history unravels the modern insistence on the possibility of history itself, and modernism's own metanarrative. This deconstruction of history and its metanarrative parses the postmodern world, which asymptotically approaches its premodern antecedents,  reinventing the sacred, and sacrifice.

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