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  The concept of sacrifice (Latin, ‘to make holy’) is difficult for the Western secular mind to understand. Not only is the colloquial usage ‘making a sacrifice’ far removed from the original practice of making something sacred by setting it apart for the divine (for example by offering it to God), but the theology of sacrifice has become divorced from its original context of worship. Nevertheless, the idea of sacrifice is still both a powerful psychological symbol and a key to understanding central Christian and Judaic doctrines such as atonement—and in many religions which spring from the primal vision the unity of worship and theology is maintained, and sacrifice is crucial to the community of human and divine.

From earliest times, sacrifices (in the form of offerings left on altars, by graves and beside sacred trees, streams, etc., and as libations or liquid offerings) were considered an appropriate response to the numinous and a means of venerating the dead. The oldest form of sacrifice was as fulfilment of a vow, whether by an individual or the community, to obtain the help or avert the displeasure of supernatural forces, or in gratitude for favours received. In essence, sacrifices were tokens or offerings paralleling the tribute made to powerful mortal rulers, but the attitude that the gods need the sweet odours of sacrifice to survive was deep-rooted. (It is satirized by Aristophanes in his play Birds, in which the birds build a wall between heaven and earth and starve the gods by blocking the passage of sacrifice.) An element of that feeling persists in the daily temple ritual in Hinduism, where the idol is bathed, clothed and fed in a manner reminiscent (at least to Westerners) of the grand levée of the ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV of France. In Hindu practice, however, offerings have a spiritual significance, and the ashes received back (smeared on the forehead) symbolize God\'s grace.

When God (or the gods) was perceived as creator of all and sustainer of the natural world, he could not very well be offered what he created or controlled, as if it were something he needed. But the belief persists that the ancestors do have need of such offerings. Indeed, anthropologists observe that sacrifice was originally associated less with belief in gods than with totemism and ancestor-worship. The symbolic statements made about relations between human and spirit realms meant that sacrifice could be interpreted in terms either of expiation or communion, the offering establishing a temporary connection between the natural and supernatural worlds, and the donor making symbolic contact because of his or her association with the offering.

In Old Testament Israel, slaughtering an animal was a sacramental act: people believed that life, contained in the blood, was returned to its source. In many ancient religions, and in some religions today, meals with meat had and have special significance, for establishing fellowship in the community and bonding it with the god. This is why God was given his portion in a sacrifice. In different societies, different hierarchies of offering existed. The Olympian religion prescribed specific creatures for sacrifice on particular occasions; in Vedic India the horse was the supreme sacrifice; in Aztec society humans were the ultimate victims. (Some anthropologists claim that this was merely a convenience, religious practice both facilitating and cloaking cannibalism. The theory is disputed, and in any case does not apply to human sacrifice in other communities.) Since the entrails of sacrificed creatures were regarded as auspicious, they were often used for divination.

Since sacrifice is seen as a means of reconciliation with and manipulation of cosmic forces, it was inevitable that the first Christians should interpret Jesus\' death (involving, they believed, victory over death) as the supreme sacrifice. Christians see Christ\'s sacrifice as different in nature from the self-immolation of gods in other religions (for example, Prometheus in the Olympian system, or the creator-mothers in Polynesian and early Japanese religion.) The writer Frances Young summarizes the developments in Christian thinking on the matter in the first centuries  CE as follows: ‘The sacrifice of Christ was God\'s act of salvation, a sacrifice offered by God to expiate sin, to avert the devil, and to reconcile God with himself; to this Christians responded with sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving.’ Such ideas of sacrifice lie at the heart of Christian theology, and it is through the influence of Christian asceticism on society in general that the phrase ‘making a sacrifice’ (that is, giving something up for the sake of a higher good) has come to have its present meaning. EMJ CL KMcL

Further reading W. Arens, The Man-eating Myth; , H. Hubert and , M. Mauss, Sacrifice, its Nature and Function.



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