Escaping the Nazi concentration camps crossed every prisoner’s mind. In July of 1941 one prisoner managed to escape. The deputy camp commander picked ten prisoners to be starved to death, in order to make a statement and discourage future escape attempts. When Franciszek Gajowniczek was selected, he cried out “My wife! My children!”. From the line of prisoners another man stepped forward and volunteered to take his place. According to an eyewitness this man led the other nine prisoners in prayer as they slowly starved to death over the course of two weeks in a small cold cement jail cell. He was the last to die and was given a lethal injection since he hadn’t yet starved to death. Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, a Catholic priest, raised his arm and waited calmly for the injection that would finally end the life he sacrificed for a father and husband he hardly knew.
This guy had an extraordinary understanding of the power of sacrifice. But where did that sense of sacrifice come from?
We can trace the origins of the word sacrifice through an interesting history that involves bloodshed, human sacrifice, and ultimately religion. This word has deeper meaning than just giving up cake.
The word sacrifice comes from the Latin “sacra” meaning sacred things, and “facere” meaning “to do or perform”.
In the ancient world sacrifice, or a sacred ritual act of offering to a god or gods in place of another or to gain something, was very common. Killing and immolation were two typical aspects of sacrifice. Even when crops or animals were sacrificed, there is always a killing and an offering to God. Let’s look at two distinct forms of sacrifice from the ancient world: pagan sacrifice and sacrifice in the Bible in the Old Testament.
Pagans would often sacrifice animals or even humans as a way to appease the gods or gain good favors from them such as a better year of farming or victory in war. They would sacrifice things like a portion of a harvest, or their own livestock, the lives of their prisoners, or even the most valuable thing of all, their own lives or the lives of people they cared about, all to appease the gods or to have someone else take the place of an unfavorable outcome for their people.
The god Baal, worshiped by the Canaanites as recorded in the Bible, was believed to ask for sacrifices of children and first-born males. They were often thrown in fires. The Aztecs killed over 80,000 prisoners in just four days during the ritual killing ceremony to consecrate the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan in 1487.
In the Bible, we find the curious story of Abraham and Isaac, where God asks Abraham to sacrifice his own son. As they approach Mount Moriah for the sacrifice, Isaac asks “where is the sacrifice?” To which Abraham replies “God will provide the lamb for the offering”. As Abraham is about to sacrifice his son, God stops him and provides a Ram instead. God teaches Abraham that He is different from the other false Gods being worshiped.
The most notable and lasting sacrifice in the Old Testament is the sacrifice of the Passover. God sends Moses to free the Hebrews who are enslaved by the Pharaoh in Egypt. On the night of the passover, the Hebrews are commanded by God to sacrifice a male lamb in its prime and to eat the flesh and paint the blood of the lamb on their doorposts. On this night they are saved from the Egyptians and begin their great exodus out of Egypt and eventually find their way to what is now Israel. Every year since then Passover has been celebrated, remembering this night of salvation from slavery that was given to the Hebrews (later called the Israelites) through the sacrificing of a lamb.
At the beginning of the Gospel of John, St. John the Baptist looks upon Jesus and proclaims “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” This might be an odd thing to say, until we look at the similarities of Jesus and the Lamb from the passover. Both Jesus and the lamb were firstborns in the prime of their lives when killed. Both Jesus and the lamb are brought into Jerusalem before Passover to be inspected. The lamb is inspected to ensure it is an acceptable sacrifice while Jesus is interrogated by Pontius Pilate. According to some Rabbinic manuscripts, the passover lamb, after being sacrificed in Jerusalem, was skewered on two wooden sticks in the shape of a cross and lifted up in the air to be processed by the head of the household back to their family. Jesus was also nailed to a wooden cross. The passover lamb was to have no legs broken, and the Gospel writer St. John notes that after dying on the cross Jesus’ legs were also spared from the usual breaking that would occur to speed up death by crucifixion.
Jesus has given the ultimate sacrifice. Where false pagan Gods were believed to selfishly require the sacrifices of animals and humans to appease their whims, the true God offers the most valuable thing in place of our own sin, Himself. There is a killing and an offering that occurs on the cross. Jesus is the sinless and sacrificed lamb, who takes away the sins of the world. And at every Mass this ultimate sacrifice is made present again for us to participate in. Just like the lamb from Passover, Jesus’ blood spread on wood posts saves us from the bondage of slavery and sin. The Eucharist is known as the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for this reason. The Eucharist is the true sacrifice and communion. Through it we are able to enter into communion with God through the sacrifice of Jesus.