A thousand books have been written on sacrifices and sacrificial offerings, and they still produce the most varied explanations. Theologians, historians, sociologists, psychologists – all have their own points of view, endeavouring to elucidate the essence of the sacrifice, some finding it in fear, some in joy, some in “lower” and some in “higher” causes. And whatever may be the value of all these explanations, it remains indubitable that wherever and whenever man turns to God, he necessarily senses the need to offer him the most precious things that he has, what is most vital for his life, as a gift and sacrifice. From the time of Cain and Abel, the blood of sacrifices has daily covered the earth and the smoke of burnt offerings has unceasingly risen to heaven.
Our “refined” sensibilities are horrified by these blood sacrifices, but these “primitive” religions. In our horror, however, do we not forget and lose something very basic, very primary, without which in essence there is no religion? For in its ultimate depths religion is nothing other than thirst for God: “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Ps 42:2); and often “primitive” people know this thirst better, they sense it more deeply – as the psalmist declared once and for all – than contemporary man does, with all his “spiritualized” religion, abstract “moralism” and dried-up intellectualism.
To want God means above all to know with one’s whole being that he is, that outside of him there is only darkness, emptiness and meaninglessness, for in him and only in him is the cause, the meaning, the goal and the joy of all existence. This means further to love him with one’s whole heart, one’s whole mind and one’s whole being. And this means, finally, to feel and to recognise our complete and boundless alienation from him, our frightful guilt and loneliness in this rupture – to know that ultimately there is only one sin: not wanting God and being separated from him; and there is only one sorrow: “not being a saint,” not having sanctification – unity with the One who is holy.
But where there is this thirst for God, this consciousness of sin and this yearning for genuine life, there necessarily is sacrifice. In this sacrifice man gives himself and his own over to his God, because, knowing God, he cannot but love him, and loving him, he cannot but strive toward him and toward unity with him. But as his sins stand on this road and encumber him, in his sacrifice man likewise seeks forgiveness and atonement; he offers it as a propitiation for sin, he fills it with all the pain and torment of his life, so that through suffering, blood and death he may finally expiate his guilt and be reunited with God. And however darkened and coarsened our religious consciousness may be, however crude, “utilitarian” or “pagan” is man’s understanding of his sacrifice – as well as of him in whose name and to whom he offers it – at its basis necessarily remains man’s primordial, indestructible thirst for God. And in his sacrifices, in these innumerable offerings, invocations and holocausts, man, albeit in darkness, albeit savage and primitive, seeks and thirsts for the one for whom he cannot cease to seek, for “God created us for himself, and our hearts will not rest until they rest in him.” [Augustine, Confessions 1:1]
Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist Sacrament of the Kingdom: Sacrament of the Kingdom. (Crestwood, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988) 101-103.