The Habit of Sacrifice

When Everyone Is Missing Something, What Can We Share?
Catholic Charities staff and volunteers in the Archdiocese of Washington distribute 800 boxes of nutritious grocery items and 800 family-size meals during the coronavirus pandemic, May 19, 2020. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

We hear a lot about sacrifice these days. The doctors and nurses who risk their lives to care for COVID-19 patients. The bus drivers, grocery-store clerks, and meatpackers who work at low pay in dangerous conditions so the rest of us can have transportation, milk, and hamburgers. Business failures and lost jobs, graduation ceremonies and wedding plans: everyone has sacrificed something to this lethal virus.

Relative to others’ sacrifices, mine have been small. I’m a Baby Boomer, born into post-war prosperity and fortunate to have been well educated and stably employed. Despite the pandemic, the retirement checks keep coming. Our home is paid for; my family is caring and close at hand. The sacrifices I make—washing hands, wearing a mask, canceling a vacation, staying home—are modest, especially considering that such precautions are taken in part to protect elders like me. 

 In an anodyne culture, our instinct is to avoid or buffer pain. But the pain of the virus will not be easily soothed. Epidemiologists expect it to return in waves over the next two years. Embracing sacrifice—not just outward relinquishment, but its accompanying inner transformation—may help us through this uneasy time.

At its root, sacrifice combines two Latin verbs: sacer (to set apart from the secular for use by supernatural powers) and facere (to make). In ancient pagan cultures, it involved killing animals, and occasionally humans, to appease angry gods or appeal to capricious ones. Sacrifice was fragrant with the smell of smoke and flesh, immolated over temple fires.

 In Jewish worship in the Old Testament, animals and grain were sacrificed not to mollify God but to reset one’s relationship with the Creator. As theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson writes: “Sacrifices were offered to give thanks for a particular blessing, to mark life-cycle events, to repent from sin, to be purified from defilement, and to celebrate festivals.” Proclaiming Christ as the Paschal sacrifice connected him with the joyful celebration of Passover and deliverance from bondage in Egypt. The Catholic Mass too is a sacrifice, connecting us with Christ’s death, Resurrection, and everlasting communion with us.

For most of my life, I’ve felt guilty that my generation got off so easily. Our parents faced privation during the Great Depression, rationing and military service during World War II. Most Baby Boomers didn’t serve in Vietnam. Few of us needed big loans to pay for college. We’ve sat by as carbon emissions and income inequality worsen. Now we’re running up the costs of Social Security and Medicare. OK Boomer.  

At its deepest, spiritual level, sacrifice is not about guilt or politics. It is about giving ourselves in love.

And yet, we live our lives not as generations but as individuals. At its deepest, spiritual level, sacrifice is not about guilt or politics. It is about giving ourselves in love. Ilia Delia, a Franciscan sister and theologian, wrote recently: “Only care for another humanizes us, which is why the death of the isolated self for the sake of greater life requires faith in the power of being loved, in the power of God. For where there is God there is love and where there is love there is no fear, because the one who lives in love, lives freely and celebrates life as belonging to another.”

When everyone is missing something, we think harder about what we can share. The roll of toilet paper left at my mother’s door on May Day, or the homemade chocolate-chip cookies my son delivers to friends, become acts of celebration and solidarity. We also use up objects saved or forgotten. In the past two months, I’ve read books I owned but never opened and shared muffins made from rhubarb and blueberries frozen in summers past. Scraps from quilting projects became face masks and a curtain for a granddaughter’s puppet theater. Sheltering at home makes us use what we have instead of buying more.

If such habits stick, the shift could be wrenching for an economy that relies on personal consumption for 70 percent of its growth. But the pause in purchasing gives us a chance to think more about what we truly need and how our communities would be different if we spent less on cars, cruises, and football games and more on social goods like alternative energy, affordable housing, public health, and education.

The pandemic has also made me more aware of my connections to others. When I turned seventy in early May, my husband surprised me with five Zoom gatherings and a socially distant serenade by neighbors on the front lawn. The day was a joyous series of reunions—with high school chums, siblings, past coworkers, writer friends, and couples whose children grew up with mine. Each gathering reminded me of some part of who I am, the gifts I’ve given and received from others, the gifts I still have to share.

We’ve grown weary of this isolation. The economy is reopening in every state, beaches, restaurants, and beauty parlors. My prayer is that we hold onto the lessons we’ve learned: keener awareness of inequities and interdependence, the joy that comes from sharing, the recognition that we all have more to give. How romantic that sounds, and how arduous. Do I want more sacrifice? No. Right now, I want to swim in a pool, see an orchestra, take my grandkids to Disney World, book a flight to Hawaii. My desire, and my privilege, persist.

If I seek their counsel, Scripture and the saints will remind me: sacrifice—like love—is not meant to be a sometime thing. It needs to be developed as a habit, as regular as grace before meals, not for God’s benefit but for my own. “You delight not in burnt offerings,” says Psalm 51. “Sacrifice to God is a broken heart, a heart contrite and humble you never scorn.” St. Augustine reminds us, “God has no need, not only of cattle, or any other earthly and material thing, but even of man’s righteousness…whatever right worship is paid to God profits not Him, but man.”

Early this spring my husband and I burned a small plot of land near our cabin to clear away weeds and plant prairie seeds. The fire spread quickly, turning last year’s thatch to ashes. Beneath the ash we found rusted barbed wire and old cow bones, which we carried off to make way for the tiny seeds. In the weeks since, daylilies planted long ago have emerged and the field grass has returned. The prairie plants—bluestem and butterfly weeds, coneflower and rose mallow—take more time and periodic burning to thrive. But time is one thing the pandemic has given us.

Lynda McDonnell is a writer and retired journalist who lives in Minneapolis and is active in immigration issues through her parish. Her work has been published in the Washington Monthly, Hudson Review, U.S. Catholic, and elsewhere. She blogs at lyndamcdonnell.com.

Also by this author
Religious Sisters on the Border

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Books
Collections