Sacrifice for Moderns

By Madeline Clark

The great-soul Cicero spent the best years of his life trying to revive among his fellow Romans the stern and simple virtues of the early Republic. He saw the increasing complexity and sophistication that were already sapping the strength of the State and were one day to prove Rome's undoing. In our own era, which in certain essentials recalls the Rome of Cicero's time and later, we again have responsible thinkers concerned lest we lose the "spirit" that ensouls the rapidly flowering genius of our civilization.

The teeming inventiveness of our time has not only taken us into space and to the heart of the atom, but has surrounded us with an astonishing abundance of material objects that make for easy living on a scale never before known in history. Yet there are few who do not recognize that for all the benefits that make possible our present way of life, some return must be made in the form of sacrifice.

Nowadays we read with academic detachment about the various ways in which sacrifice has been performed, from the gifts of sacred butter, rice, or precious spices in the temples of the Orient, to the first fruits, the unleavened bread, and animal offerings of Biblical times, and even the human sacrifices attributed to certain ancient and some more modern peoples in both the Old and New Worlds. But behind what we now recognize as merely symbolic rituals, there must always have been some degree of reverence for the gods. Only in a decadent cycle, surely, would these rites have been more or less perfunctory.

Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher, pointed out that ritual tended to fall into disuse as the people grew in spiritual power. That would be when the outer form was no longer significant, because the spirited and positive approach to life would have made every act, consciously or unconsciously, an offering to the Supreme. For every man's life and character are his own altar and ritual, to borrow a thought from the teaching of the rabbis.

Nevertheless, these objective rituals do serve to illustrate to us that there were various degrees of sacrifice, some lesser, some greater. The bloodless sacrifice was an offering of fruit or flowers, butter, milk, or honey; but the blood-offering was accomplished by the giving of life itself, either of animals or of men. The counsels of the wise, however, have always held the giving of the self, in service to the whole, as the noblest sacrifice of all. The degree and quality of the sacrifice depended upon the strength of soul possessed by the individual.

Sacrifice has been significantly defined as "originally a religious act which in primitive ages brought the gods and their worshipers into contact." Here is a thought that engages the imagination, and makes any sacrifice more meaningful; for of course it is still true, even though times and ways have changed. As long as men have possessed self-consciousness they have been sensitive to the fine balance between giving and receiving, between what life brings in to them on its flood, and what they owe in return. Hence the necessity of sacrifice in order to preserve their friendship with the gods. Krishna, in his wonderful discourse in the Bhagavad-Gita, tells Arjuna how man must nourish the gods with worship and sacrifice: "But for him who makes no sacrifices, there is neither part nor lot in this world."

There is indeed a sense of sacred obligation that is so familiar to us that it is taken for granted, and becomes the incentive to the performance of honorable duties of the most everyday character. A man who takes on the responsibilities of a home and family sets aside many of his own inclinations. Even a child, from the time that it first sets out to school, has begun to make the involuntary sacrifice of its hitherto carefree condition. All who are dedicated to a lifework have inevitably renounced much self-gratification. The steadfastness with which an individual can do this determines the measure of his success in commanding a larger sphere where his work contributes to the general good. At last we reach the apex of human achievement in the field of genius, and we have a Beethoven, whose music moves us as no other can, by a mysterious quality that no critic has ever been able to define, and who could write in his private notebook this simple memorandum:

Sacrifice again all the pettiness of social life to your art. . . . Gladly will I submit myself to all the vicissitudes and place my sole confidence in Thy unalterable goodness, Oh God! . . . Be my rock, my light, forever my trust!

It is of value to note the two component parts of the word "sacrifice," which together signify "a rendering sacred" by an act of worship or of giving. Inherent in the word is the spirit of consecration, of offering something prized and precious, thereby coming closer to the gods, i.e., to the inner monitor that presides over all our life and is never quite absent from our consciousness. Thus the ancient concept of sacrifice is still with us, as close as our every act, and giving present reality to the old Mystery-phrase, "the sacredness of the moment and the day." The sacrificial rites in their various degrees have their counterparts in the impulses that move us to the act of giving, stirring ever more deeply the stream of our consciousness, so that with our gift of substance or of service we constantly give of ourselves. Thus we find that we are working with a universal law which embraces the whole of nature — each kingdom depends for its sustenance upon the kingdom below it: the animals upon the plants; and humans upon the animals as well as the plants; and all three upon the mineral, as we know. And here is where the idea fits in that the human kingdom nourishes the gods by worship and sacrifice, call those gods what we may. The thought has merit in that it serves to demonstrate how the principle of sacrifice is woven into the universal fabric.

Even the gods are governed by this law, as is shown in the mythologies of various peoples. In the stories of the Aztecs, as retold by Alfonso Caso (The Aztecs, People of the Sun by Alfonso Caso, trans. Lowell Dunham.) the world with all that lives in it is destroyed at cosmic intervals, either by flood or fire, or by a similar cataclysm, and cannot be re-created except by the stupendous efforts of the gods; the bright gods personified by Quetzalcoatl having to overcome the gods of darkness, symbolized by Tezcatlipoca.

The legend has it that the worlds and their humanities were gradually being perfected through this process of destruction and regeneration. Finally, at the last great cataclysm the Sun itself was engulfed, and there was no luminary to light the world. This called for a sacrifice from the gods, one of whom must give up his life and be transformed into the new Sun. Two gods offered themselves. One, proud and rich, brought balls of copal and liquidambar as his gift to the father of the gods, and spines fashioned from rare coral instead of the customary maguey thorns stained with his own blood. The other god, poor and humble, had nothing to offer but balls of grass, and maguey spines "dyed in the blood of his own sacrifice."

On the appointed day the chosen gods must cast themselves into the sacred brazier, in which a great fire burned. He who succeeded in this trial would come forth purified to illumine the world with his radiance. Three times the rich god attempted to leap into the flames, but each time his heart failed him. Then came the turn of the god who was destitute of possessions. In one mighty effort he plunged into the sacred fire, which consumed him in a burst of flame. Then the rich god, ashamed of his cowardice, did likewise, and the jaguar and the eagle gods followed. At last — out came the Sun! But not to mount the sky. It hung on the horizon, and only then was it learned that all the other gods, the stars and planets, must likewise offer themselves. This led to the great war in heaven, in which the new Sun was triumphant, symbolically demanding universal sacrifice to sustain him in his work.

Why does this ancient tale move us with a curious sense of familiarity — as though we ourselves were the participants? Is it because it expresses in legendary form the very thing that happens within ourselves whenever we come to one of those profound challenges that reorient our lives? — god or human, it is all the same.

(From Sunrise magazine, March 1979. Copyright © 1979 by Theosophical University Press.)


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