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.