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4. The Altar of Sacrifice

An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. And if you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones; for if you wield your tool upon it you profane it.

Exodus 20:24-25.

We have seen three essential elements in Israel's tabernacle: the offerings of the materials for it to be built at all, the making of the ark to receive the Word of God, and the lighting of the lights to let the whole be seen. These things are real. But they are certainly not the whole of anyone's inner life. They are the good side. And as I think of them, and think of letting them come into my inner life with power, I find another side of me that also needs to be heard.

The wealth of materials for a tabernacle, the ark of the Word of God, and the light of Love itself from the Presence of God? That doesn't feel like what's in me. The things I notice are the strangest combinations of fears and hurts and weird, embarrassing memories, some joys and hopes, some wants and worries, some plans, and some plain, blind panic. I do sometimes have a sense of peacefulness or beauty, or awe that I am alive at all, and, yes, sometimes when I need it a strength that gives me courage. But usually it's the strange things, and I have the feeling that if I open the door to them, all sorts of horrible, worse things will come. Even if that holy center is there, how in the world can I get what's in my mind to come near it? And is it safe?

And so I know that if the dwelling place of God is to be real for me, it won't always be easy. It feels frightening and painful to deal with those things, even though I tell myself the pain is a pain of growth. But no significant journey is always easy. And I know it is my journey. The choice to do it and the timing of it, are mine. And so I am ready to go on and ask the Lord how to come near the Presence of God within in ways that lead to healing and not to hurt.

But the first step in coming near is building an altar of sacrifice. And instantly my mind begins to bring up its objections. Now, wait a minute. Killing animals on altars doesn't sound like a very promising start. Those verses in Exodus are grim. What possible use can those instructions be to me? Haven't we learned beyond all doubt that God asks no such thing? We know the Lord desires "mercy and not sacrifice, knowledge of God more than burnt offerings." (Hos. 6:6). "To do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly" with God has always meant more than "thousands of rams or ten thousands of rivers of oil." (Mic. 6:6-8). Obviously, such sacrifices have never been what God really wanted of people, and they aren't now. God does not desire death and pain, and God has not changed.

These questions are valid and cannot be left without response. A first step is to consider the meaning of sacrifice for ancient Israel. For us today, the word "sacrifice" has almost entirely negative connotations: "to offer to God, to give up, destroy, permit injury or forego a valued thing for the sake of something of greater value, to sell at less than the supposed value," according to Random House. The root meaning of the word, however, was its meaning for Israel. They meant quite literally to "make holy" (sacer and facere), to bring to God, and usually with great joy.

Some sacrifices were wholly give to God as burnt offerings which went up in flames. The far more common thing to do with sacrifices, however, was to eat them. This was the rule with the peace offerings. Ancient Israel lived mainly on the milk and cheese of sheep and goats, and then, later on, of larger cattle, as they settled and began to raise crops. To kill one of those animals for food was for a rare occasion only, a special guest meal or celebration, a yearly family gathering (I Sam. 20:6), a fulfillment of a vow or giving of thanks (Ps. 116:17f), or a coronation (I Sam. 11:15). When Israel went to Gilgal to crown Saul king, "they sacrificed peace offerings before the LORD, and there Saul and all the men of Israel rejoiced greatly" (I Sam. 11:15). Another time, Samuel, the seer, went to a high place to "bless the sacrifice," to which some thirty people had been invited, and persuaded Saul to stay and eat a special portion of the meat as an extra guest (I Sam 9:13-24). A key word at these festival meals is "rejoice," and Israel's celebration of any public worship was in Hebrew called typically "rejoicing" before the Lord their God (Dt. 16:11).

All eating of meat involves sacrifice, the giving of one life that another may live. Some religions have responded to this with abstinence from meat, and others with the reminder that all eating of any food is to be done reverently as worship. Israel's response accepted the distinctiveness of the eating of meat, and asked a special reverence at any accepting of another breathing "soul of life" (Gen. 1:24) for food. This response symbolized, at least in part, sharing in a common life with all creatures who have breath, and realizing that we continue in life only through receiving it from others.

Israel's kosher meat observance is a literal reminder of this attitude to life. The life of an animal is its blood as well as its breath. And so, according to the tradition, when after the flood mankind took the step that separated them from their original membership in the family of moving, breathing creatures when all lived peacefully on green plants, the one part of the animal not to be eaten, was the blood. Blood and breath were too holy, too closely connected with the original gift of life, and the blood was to be poured out to God, the giver of life. So God blessed Noah, and said

Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of man. . . . Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.

Gen. 9:3-6

In Israel's sacred eating of meat, then, the blood was sprinkled on the altar, the fat and kidneys burned upon it, the breast and right thigh especially handled, the thigh given to the priest, and the remainder returned to the man who offered it as a feast for him and his friends. In this slaughtering of the animal there was the relinquishing of one's own proprietorship, the acknowledgment that all life is a gift. The feast became a feast from the Lord, which otherwise might have been mere enjoyment of one's own good things. To eat our life food in this manner is to hallow the actions of our lives, not doing them from habit or necessity or as our own empty pleasure, but "rejoicing before the Lord," living new life freely in what we do. The Lord's word about sacrifice in this passage in Exodus does not ask an arbitrary work of supererogation in coming to the Holy Place. It asks that we bring the substance of our actual lives to the Lord, to be touched and to be hallowed.

Samuel went to a "high place" to consecrate the sacrifice. An altar is typically raised up, a spiritual high place, as opposed to a depression. It might be raised of earth or of stones. Good earth receives seeds and brings forth fruit. It is our longing for goodness that we raise before the Lord, the certainty that all goodness has its source in the Lord, and the desire to do that goodness. Once there, it remains a height in the mind, a place of sureness and perspective as we go down from it to work or return to it for direction.

Stones, on the other hand, are firm truths that do not shift around. Some people work more naturally from good or feeling and receiving, and others from truth or searching and understanding. There is no value judgment here. Some can build an altar of stones more easily than one of earth. The only provision for the stones is that we accept each stone in its wholeness, and do not hew it to our own devices. The essential for the altar is not that it be earth or stones, but that it be real and of our building. To demand immediate demonstration of feeling from those who need to work first in thought, is inconsiderate and frightening. To demand words from those who need to live first with feeling states or intuitive awareness, is hopeless and frustrating. Worship, like love, is comfortable in an atmosphere of appreciation for what each person offers freely and with integrity; it is uncomfortable with demands laid on arbitrarily from outer space. Either altar is good. Either needs only to be raised in the heart whose altar it is.

The animals to be offered are our affections, our feelings for what we desire as good. Animals have a strange power to engage our feelings. Visualize for a moment a cat, a lion, a snake, a lamb. Each brings out a different and quite distinct response, a quality in us that needed only the symbol to come alive. That spark of identification with the cat's distinctive kind of playfulness, combined as it is with a readiness to pounce, is that little leap or tug inside us in response. So all animals symbolize feelings, some wild, some tame, all powerful, but not in a language we understand in words.

The animals Israel brought regularly to the altar were from their flocks (sheep, lambs, goats, or kids), that is innocence and love in the inner person, or the bigger work animals of their herds (oxen, bullocks, and calves), that is feelings for good and truth in the external person in action in the world. These feelings are the power behind all our inner states, all our relationships, and all our actions. New life here, renewing love from God, is mercy and knowledge of the Lord, in which the Lord does indeed come near and bless the life brought near for hallowing. For that is what blessing is: "that which has within it being from the Divine" (AC 8939).1 And all we have said about Israel's use of the altar of sacrifice, has to do with awareness of that which is of God in all of life.

All this is very beautiful, but we have not yet responded to one of our original questions. It is, after all, a "slaughter altar." How does the pain of death fit with what we have been saying? This question is real. The animal we eat does die, and Israel had not yet hidden that fact under the plastic wrappers of the supermarket. To know that what sustains my life is a gift, not mine until I release it and receive it again, to give up my proprietorship, is to experience a dying. True, the flame on the altar is the Love of God in all its light and heat and life. But that flame asks all of me if I am to let it touch my life. To receive my life again in freedom, I must first have given it up. I cannot even approach that Love without being deeply and even desperately conscious of the evil in my own heart. For me as an adult, the innocence with which the Lord unites is the innocence of repentance, of turning back to the Lord as the source of my life.

Death is part of sacrifice. For the Christian, the sacrifices of Israel prefigure that one most significant death, Jesus'. But if we respect Israel's use of sacrifice, this is not in the negative sense of an arbitrary loss, a negative bargain struck with God or a penalty paid for a fault. It is in the sense of a life in which the Love of God comes to us where we are, gives itself to us, touches us, hallows us, and makes us come alive if we give ourselves up to it.

Giving is not without its consequences. There is no coming to the light of that flame that does not show up vividly the weird, and even more weird and unexpected, as well as the deeply satisfying elements in my inner life. Israel made offerings for sin, defilement, and trespass, as well as for thanksgiving, and knew that these too were part of them and had their place in worship. We will be dealing with them later and with the issue of pain and death. The first step is to know that there is the Holy Place within, that God's presence is with us to touch the depths of our feelings and of our awareness. But, clearly, this Place will not be functional for us until we bring the feelings to the altar, the actual underlying feelings, whatever they are, that make us do the things we do. But, again, in the very awareness of the strangeness of what we have to bring, the light of the Presence is already working; and the power, the living energy of that light is Love.

Think back for a moment on the wonder of a holy place within you where God dwells with you. Really with you. Not with the front you take to church or lay out there for the public. But with you, with those fears, hurts, memories, joys, hopes, worries, plans, panics, strengths, and sometimes awe.

Turn to God's Word, and read the meditation Psalm 139:

O LORD, thou hast searched me and known me! Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up;
thou discernest my thoughts from afar. Thou searchest out my path and my lying down,
and art acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether.
For thou didst form my inward parts,
thou didst knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise thee, for thou art fearful and wonderful.
Wonderful are thy works! Thou knowest me right well;
my frame was not hidden from thee, when I was being made in secret,
intricately wrought in the depths of the earth. Thy eyes beheld my unformed substance;
in thy book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them. How precious to me are thy thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand. When I awake, I am still with thee.
Before that thought had reached the conscious verbal state of being on your tongue, God knew it altogether. Before any inner part of you had come to birth at all, God knew it. And, knowing all of what you are, God gave you life and brought you to birth and into being. What is the strangest thought or fear that might come in that strange country of your mind? God knows it altogether, and still is there.

Now read again Exodus 20:24-25, and hear God's Word addressed to you to come, to build your altar, to bring your feelings as they are, to receive your life from God, and to be blessed.

An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. And if you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones; for if you wield your tool upon it you profane it.

Lord, thank you that you know me better than I know myself, and still you ask me to raise my thoughts or feelings to be an altar for you to come to give me blessing. Thank you that the sacrifice you want is not some punishment for guilt, or game of saying the right words, or proving worthiness, or bargaining for the right favor for some move ahead, but simply coming, as I am, to you who know me, to let your love touch me and to receive the gift of life. Thank you, Lord. Amen.

1 Emanuel Swedenborg, Arcana Coelestia (New York: Swedenborg foundation, Inc.) Par. #8939.

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