Sacrifice and Praise
Sermon offered by Christina Palis, M.Div, on Sunday, March 14, 2021
Glory to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.
As Teva introduced so beautifully last week, during this Antiochian Women’s month we are focusing on the Liturgy of the Faithful and delving into the themes present in our communal gathering. I am grateful and honored to have the opportunity today to speak about the themes of sacrifice and praise. While at first glance sacrifice and praise may seem an unlikely pairing, they are interwoven throughout our liturgical celebration. It is also fitting that I should be speaking about this today on Forgiveness Sunday as we anticipate the start of the Lenten season, a season of both sacrifice and praise.
Let us start with sacrifice, often understood as the official act or ceremony of offering something to God or more generally as the act of offering or giving something up for the sake of another. Sacrifice was a common practice in Ancient Israel, and in the Old Testament God commanded the Israelites to make sacrifices to win favor, secure pardon, or give thanks. These sacrifices, outlined in the book of Leviticus, involved a material transformation, often burning an animal or grain as an offering to God.
These types of sacrifices are quite foreign to our experience, and sacrifice takes on a new meaning with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Instead of offering a material object, Christ offered Himself as a sacrifice out of His deep love for us. It is this ultimate and loving sacrifice that we commemorate together each Sunday at Divine Liturgy.
Turning to the text of the Liturgy, we gain a deeper understanding of this life-giving and loving sacrifice. Within prayers that Fr. Antony reads throughout the liturgy we hear of God’s “holy Altar of sacrifice” upon which we offer “gifts and spiritual sacrifices for our own sins and the failings of the people.” While the choir sings the Cherubic Hymn, Fr. Antony says, “You, as the Master of all, became our high priest and delivered unto us the sacred service of this liturgical sacrifice without the shedding of blood.” The sacrifice offered in the Liturgy is a bloodless sacrifice, a spiritual sacrifice. This is mirrored in the familiar words of Psalm 51, “For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it. You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart.” In our liturgical celebration, we are called to offer ourselves - our attention, our presence and our humility - to God.
Before the Creed, Fr. Antony offers a prayer that links sacrifice and praise together. It begins, “You accept the sacrifice of praise from those who call upon You with their whole heart.” Then, at the beginning of the Great Eucharistic Prayer, the Anaphora, when the priest invites us to “present the Holy Offering in peace,” we hear sacrifice and praise again woven together as the choir responds, “A mercy of peace, a sacrifice of praise.”
As Orthodox Christians, praise is integral to our prayer life and celebration of the Divine Liturgy. As the priest lifts up the gifts to the Lord, offering “Your own of your own,” we respond with the hymn, “We praise You, we bless You, we give thanks to You, and we pray to You.” And before the Lord’s Prayer, Fr. Antony says, “And grant that with one voice and one heart we may glorify and praise Your most honorable and majestic name.” And of course, our familiar Communion hymn from Psalm 148: “Praise the Lord from the heavens, Praise Him in the highest.” And finally after Communion, the Choir joyfully sings, “Let our mouths be filled with Your praise, O Lord, that we may sing of Your glory.”
Throughout the Liturgy, we are called again and again to respond to God’s love with praise and thanksgiving. The practice of praise is a joyful acknowledgment of God’s presence, and it allows us to celebrate the blessings and beauty around us and also meet suffering with strength. I think of the beautiful Akathist of Thanksgiving, a text written by Metropolitan Tryphon in the early 20th century during a time of Christian persecution. A few of my favorite lines:
“Glory to Thee for Thy mercies, seen and unseen,
Glory to Thee through every sigh of my sorrow,
Glory to Thee for Thy goodness even in the time of darkness when all the world is hidden from our eyes.
Glory to Thee for every step of my life's journey,
Glory to Thee, ceaselessly watching over me,
Glory to Thee for the warmth and tenderness of the world of nature.
Glory to Thee for the encounters Thou dost arrange for me,
Glory to Thee for the love of parents, for the faithfulness of friends,
Glory to Thee for the inventiveness of the human mind,
Glory to Thee for the unforgettable moments of life,
Glory to Thee for the joy of living, Moving and being able to return Thy love”
The text offers gratitude to God for all things, large and small - the beauty of our natural world, our relationships with others, simply being alive. How often do we move through our days with this expansive sense of mindfulness and gratitude? The calls to offer sacrifices of praise in our Liturgy ground us in this joyful practice.
Through and beyond the Liturgy, we also see that spiritual sacrifices are integral to our relationship with others, and we can look to the Trinity as a model of sacrificial, unceasing, and joyful love. Bishop Kallistos Ware writes, “Made after the image of God the Trinity, human beings are called to reproduce on earth the mystery of mutual love that the Trinity lives in heaven.” Like the Trinity, we do not exist for ourselves but for one another. Just as God is three persons in one essence, dwelling together in eternal and selfless love, all human beings are to be committed to living sacrificially for each other.
In order to describe this relationship between members of the Trinity, Eastern theologians have used the term perichoresis, a word that comes from the Greek word for dance. It has been described by Archbishop Stylianos as “an ineffable and captivating reciprocal embrace of infinite love.” What a beautiful image through which to understand sacrifice as integral to our dynamic and mutual relationship with God and others.
What if we understood the spiritual sacrifices that we are called to in Liturgy and our everyday life, sacrifices of praise and service and forgiveness and compassion, as a dance? I think of the circular dances of our Greek and Lebanese cultures where we move together, in coordinated steps, hand in hand. When we dance with others, we are mindful of them, we are receptive to their movements, we pay attention, and we are joyful.
This idea is reiterated in St Paul’s letter to the Hebrews in which he writes, “Let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name. But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.” The sacrifices that we offer to God must go beyond praising Him in our prayers, hymns, and communal worship; we are called also “to do good and to share” - to act with love and compassion to others.
In what ways do you practice spiritual sacrifice and praise each day? I think about my work as a social worker and therapist, in which I accompany families facing cancer diagnoses. My spiritual sacrifices are presence, attention, empathy. My offerings are praise and thankfulness for the privilege of their vulnerability and for the opportunity to do this work. I think about my role as a daughter, a wife, a friend, in which my spiritual sacrifices are less often large gestures but the small moments - an expression of gratitude, the offering of understanding or forgiveness, reaching out to convey my presence and care during a year full of change and loss.
Great Lent begins tomorrow. On the surface, the period of Lent can appear a time of grudging, material sacrifice, giving up many foods we love for 40 days. But we are invited during this time to practice a different type of sacrifice modeled after Christ Himself, the unconditional loving dance of the Trinity, and a spirit of joyfulness and praise. The earthly and material sacrifices we make serve to draw us closer to God, to others, and ourselves. We are called to deepen our spiritual sacrifices of praise through our beautiful Lenten services and personal prayer practice. We are called to spiritual sacrifices of service and compassion, offering our time, solidarity, and resources to those less privileged. We are called to offer spiritual sacrifices of mindfulness, forgiveness, kindness, and empathy.
May we enter this beautiful season ready to offer abundantly and with hearts full of praise.
Glory to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.