Girard, sacrifice, and the (Holy Sacrifice of the) Mass, Part II

Two weeks ago I offered a summary of René Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning.  Girard’s insights into the origins of violence and the violent origins of civilization are worth serious consideration.  The social insights that come out of his theory are often unsettling.  For example, he realizes that Christianity’s concern for victims has been largely absorbed into contemporary society, though this concern itself can be perverted by mimetic contagion:  “we practice a hunt for scapegoats to the second degree, a hunt for the hunters of scapegoats.”

There’s fruit for several posts in that sentence alone, but when I first read Girard it was in the context of sacramental theology.  So today I’d like to turn to a couple of questions having to do with the Eucharist.  Here, to be clear, we start to move beyond Girard’s views to my own musings.

Girard’s analysis highlights one of the more disquieting aspects of the Passion accounts for those living in contemporary Western culture:  the role of the crowd.  The democratic sentiments of our upbringing tend sometimes to idealize “the people.”  An inscription I still remember from a high school visit to the Minnesota State Capitol—Vox popoli – vox Dei, “the voice of the people is the voice of God”—expresses just such a sentiment, a sentiment thoroughly undermined by Girard’s account of the “single victim mechanism.”  For, if you recall, in the Girardian story “the people” unite against the scapegoat.  And in the experiment with direct democracy that was Christ’s trial, Barabbas won the referendum.

My question in light of such considerations is:  what does all this mean for our “sacramental iconography”?  In other words, when Christ offers his Paschal sacrifice, he does so as an individual, alone and abandoned, turned against by the crowd.  His “singularity” here seems important, but there is also a paradoxical element in the moment because his aloneness is something to which we are called to unite ourselves.

The role of the priest here seems to hint at this dynamic—an individual offering sacrifice, nonetheless representing the whole Church.  Perhaps readers will correct me if I’m putting this point badly, but it seems to me that sometimes it’s important symbolically to have an individual representing the whole rather than a group.

If there’s a practical application to all of this, it is that a certain modesty should be observed in any attempt to “democratize” the Mass or “expand” the role of the assembly at the expense of that of the priest.  Such modesty is not a call for “clericalism,” but rather the recognition of the complex, at times paradoxical, dynamics at play in the celebration of the Eucharist.  Among democrats (small “d”) there’s always a risk of making an idol out of “the people.”

Perhaps an even more fundamental question for Eucharistic theology in light of Girard is what becomes of the notion of the Mass as “sacrifice”—an idea which might make us post-moderns a bit squeamish to begin with.  At least one theologian who has read Girard, Patrick T. McCormick (A Banqueter’s Guide to the All-Night Soup Kitchen of the Kingdom of God, 2004), calls the Eucharist an “un-sacrifice” and seems to want to eliminate the idea of sacrifice from our post-Vatican II Eucharistic vocabulary.  I find McCormick’s position untenable, however, not least because Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council’s document on the liturgy, itself refers to the Mass as “sacrifice” nine times (more even than it uses the term “supper,” 5 times, or meal, none).

Here I think we have to remember that Girard’s anthropology only brings us to the threshold of theology, but that, as Girard himself recognizes in I See Satan, we need other properly theological perspectives—especially those born of the Resurrection—to complement his own.

If the function of sacrifice were limited only to its role in bringing about a (usually false and unjust) resolution to mimetic crisis, then McCormick’s conclusion might be justified.  But Christ’s Passion is best understood as a transformation of sacrifice rather than a negation of the concept.  The Resurrection, after all, does not negate or destroy the world; it transforms it.

Perhaps the key concept that must be added to sacrifice in order for us to see this transformation is self-giving.  Understanding the Passion—and by extension the Eucharist—in light of divine self-gift helps us to see it as an act of love.

The key difference between Christ’s sacrifice and those of pagan religions is that Jesus offers himself, while pagan religions offer someone else in an attempt to avoid the claim God makes on us.  The perspective we gain from the Resurrection helps us to see the treatment of sacrifice in the Old Testament in a new light as well.  The sacrifice of Abraham, for example, cannot be understood fully without appreciating the self-sacrificial elements in it; in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham offers God his future and his hope.

Nor can the general trajectory of the prophets be read as a simple movement away from ritual sacrifice, for doing so ignores the post-exilic prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi with their call to rebuild the Temple and restore ritual sacrifice and worship.  Instead the trajectory is toward a more holistic notion of sacrifice that includes right ethical conduct as a necessary prerequisite for Temple worship.

Such a movement is beautifully illustrated, for example, in Psalm 51, the great prayer of a repentant sinner who says to the Lord, “For in sacrifice you take no delight, burnt offering from me you would refuse, my sacrifice, a contrite spirit.”  Taken alone these lines might seem to devalue ritual sacrifice.  The psalm ends, however, with a return to Temple sacrifice, now understood in relation to right conduct and proper spiritual disposition:  “Then you will be pleased with lawful sacrifice, holocausts offered on your altar.”

What we see then, even in the Old Testament, is a movement away from sacrifice as substitution and toward sacrifice as a total self-gift, a gift encompassing all aspects of one’s life.  Girard’s analysis, even if it doesn’t provide this final step itself, allows us to see just how remarkable this movement is against a background of pagan substitution, scapegoating, and perpetual violence.


It’s been a very Girardian few weeks on Whosoever Desires; if you missed it, one of our readers brought Girard’s review of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ to our attention in the discussion of Nathan’s critique of the film.

17 Responses to Girard, sacrifice, and the (Holy Sacrifice of the) Mass, Part II

  1. Qualis Rex says:

    Anthony – very heady stuff, indeed. One agreement and one challenge if I may:
    1) The role of the priest at the sacrifice of the mass is a complete self-sacrifice as you say. The priest encompasses so many different roles during the liturgical celebration; the inheritor of “high priest” of the temple, the leader of the humanity left on earth, and of course Christ Himself (persona Christi). I both envy you and pity you. But if anyone here is up for these roles, I believe you are.

    2) While you say even in the OT there is a move away from “traditional” sacrifice, I think in Psalms this was just a “one off”. Ritual sacrifice (i.e. animals) was an ingrained component of Jewish life. Even up to the time of the birth of Our Lord we are told that the BVM and St Joseph made a small sacrifice of doves to mark the birth of Jesus. While the precedent had been set that men sacrifice themselves in battle for a greater good, the idea of sacrificing one’s whole being for the souls of others was I believe a completely foreign concept. I could be wrong here, but i don’t know of any OT stories which would allude to this. Thus, the challenge to you. Do you know of any OT references other than Psalms that would suggest this shift in the notion of sacrifice?

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      Hmmm… I don’t think I would say a movement away from traditional sacrifice, but more toward ritual sacrifice plus something more, that something more ultimately not becoming clear until Calvary. You’re right, I think, about ritual sacrifice being a part of Jewish life. One could argue that those who participate in ritual sacrifice are giving up something of theirs (they buy the doves, for example). But this never quite approaches the self-sacrifice of Jesus.

      Many would see a line such as Hosea 6:6 “For it is love I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than holocausts” as a movement away from ritual sacrifice. They’d read the prophets as pushing in that direction. This seems a bit too simplistic to me because of the considerations you point out and because of other parts in the prophetic literature where the emphasis is on restoring the Temple. That’s why I want to read the prophets as moving toward “sacrifice plus” rather than simply away from sacrifice altogether (transformation rather than negation). “Sacrifice plus” meaning right ethical conduct plus right ritual conduct all building up to total self-gift, Jesus.

    • Andrew McKenna says:

      A spectacular instance is Judah offering himself to Joseph in place of his father’s beloved Benjamin. He cannot know what will happen to him and he acts out of filial love for his father–even tho’ his fatgehr prefers Ben. to all.
      Another is the concubine who offers her baby back to her rival who is willing to see it killed by King Solomon. She runs to risk of being executed, we know. In BOTH stories, a person serves as a model for the authority: Joseph embraces his brothers, doubtless inspired by Judah’s self- giving. Solomon wisdom is modeled after the “true mother.” I am not a Scripture scholar, so I can offer only big examples right off the bat, but they are probative and both are seen as prophetic of the Passion.

  2. Philip Endean SJ says:

    thanks for this. Temperamentally, I am not at all in sympathy with this, but it’s very cogently and challengingly put, and it really makes me think.

  3. […] one must tread carefully. I am not the first to have mentioned Girard in this context. This reflection, on one of my favorite Catholic blogs, appeared yesterday after I’d drafted most […]

  4. Qualis Rex says:

    Anthony – thanks for that. You touched on some very dangerous territory for me (in a “red pill” kind of way).

  5. Philip Endean SJ says:

    I’m still thinking a lot about this, on many levels. Would you go so far as to say that ‘concelebration’–which I would rather call ‘co-presidency’–is at least undermined by this kind of stress on Christ’s aloneness?

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:


      Now, that is an interesting question. As I was working on the post, I was wondering about what it meant for concelebration (or co-presidency, as you put it) but didn’t come to any definite conclusions.

      I think you’re right that concelebration probably tends to weaken the stress on Christ’s aloneness (and vice versa). This doesn’t mean that there aren’t other compelling factors that weigh in concelebration’s favor, the priest wanting to exercise his Eucharistic ministry, for example, which he might (and probably should!) see as an important service to the People of God.

      Even if these other considerations in the end outweigh the “minuses” against concelebration, at the least the stress on Christ’s aloneness calls for attentiveness to the way concelebration is carried out, even what might seem like mundane logistical details like where the priests stand. We’d probably want to avoid it seeming like there’s a crowd around the altar.

      As I was thinking about your question, I was also thinking about the notion of distances in the liturgy… all the distances surrounding Christ in his moment of absolute aloneness, as well as the distances that are overcome (between heaven and earth, between God and humanity) in the Eucharist… it seems important that the liturgy somehow maintains these distances, at the very least so that we have a sense of them being overcome… this might also factor into the concelebration question, but I’m not sure exactly how yet.

      Anyway, I’m really glad the post got you thinking and would be very glad to hear any other ideas, questions, challenges, musings you have…


  6. Challenging further musings, Anthony, while simultaneously further challenges to reason’s
    incapacity to both analyze and comprehend the
    mystery of it all: over the millennia, we make small
    strides, never quantum leaps….

    All Christian scholars converge on “paradox” as norm.
    For us. All Jewish scholars have been for the most
    part lost in, and to, our Tradition! So, for us
    to take topical potshots at OT interpretation is
    now I posit a maturity-required turning point in our
    Salvation History escapade…. In End-times reality
    (cf. Zachariah, ch. 8) the Hebrew and the Christian
    Churches will be reunited as when we took our 1st
    baby steps! Meantime, it’s time our Age starts this
    process of mutual rediscovery, mutual sharing of two
    distinctive yet universal Covenants, and converge
    on our common destiny! The Last Banquet will be One!

    During the interval, we play with the little we’ve
    inherited, share the few marbles (of understanding)
    we have, and remember in Whose Name the game (of life)
    is played: it’s always, His stage we’re on!

    Therein there is a unity (of the crowd!) in Christ
    -but never yes, in the crowd itself, as such-
    and, an encounter with reason taking turns in the road
    of understanding, definitively existential and only
    topically rational!

    Everybody, and every language (both human & Divine!)
    has a hermeneutic! Because we, we Xians, do not
    have a predictable God! Fissures and volcanoes are
    expected, as the norm: clear logical analysis is our
    idolatrous self-deception!

    Xtian Life is wholistic plus holistic. Because Xt
    unifies all (cf. Chardin) to heal humanity and restore
    wholeness (lost by the 1st Adam):
    – His birth endorses creation;
    – His death judges it;
    – His resurrection re-connects it with Eternity,
    and the Trinity in toto.

    Prayer is therefore an expression of this re-connection, at its highest human form in the mystery
    of the Mass.

    And its profundity will only in ongoing Millennia
    begin to be grasped by the crowd when it looks
    beyond itself to the cosmological realization that
    we will as a crowd only learn to love and apply
    the 11th Commandment, once we realize first,
    that we are loved. Unconditionally.

  7. […] posts. I think some hints of where an answer might be found can be seen in the final paragraphs of this post at Whosoever Desires (a very Girardian blog name!), while others can be found in the observation someone made on my […]

  8. cp-yakdiocese says:

    Great review! I am a seminarian at gonzaga university, and I am just finishing a class with McCormick, I was completely turned off by his attack on the notion of sacrifice. It seems that McCormick and Girard are offering (no pun intended) a different term for “sacrifice” than is offered in the catechism and in the summa.

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      Thanks, CP. I would say, though, that the views of McCormick and Girard are not interchangeable. I don’t really agree with McCormick’s interpretation of Girard, and I think that Girard can be interpreted in ways that are much more in keeping with the Catechism (and Sacrosanctum Concilium) than what McCormick offers…

      Glad you’re reading the blog!

  9. I sometimes call myself Girard’s midwest distributor since I’ve been working on his ideas for more than 40 years. I find Tony’s portrayal of the interest and the limits of Girardian anthopology quite accurate and stimulating. Girard is NOT a theologian, but there are some theologians out there like James Alison who coordinate Mimetic Theory quite luminously with Scriptural Studies, Systematic Theology, and Ecclesiology. I’ll try to get him to given another talk on campus next year some time.

  10. Tony is right. Girard is 1. not a theologian or trying to be one and 2. thoroughly orthodox in his adherence to Catholic doctrine. He has described himself as “an ordinary Christian.” The paradox here is that his writings ignite much enthusiasm among theologians, scriptural scholars, and people involved in all sorts of pastoral work. To understand this, I refer you (all) once again to the writings of James Alison, who covers Girard’s theological wing, so to speak, and of whom Rowan Williams write: “Alison makes the New Testament fell new.”

  11. […] I tried to summarize some of the ideas from earlier discussion here on Whosoever Desires.  (The original posts are here and here.) […]

  12. […] work on a master’s thesis about sacrifice and the Mass (some of the ideas for which I test drove here on Whoseoever Desires), and my research has raised a question so basic we usually forget to ask it:  […]

  13. […] At least within the liturgy, the presider can hold a similar sort of stable, Christlike position. It is even useful that the liturgy must by necessity have a presider; there is something dangerous about an undifferentiated “people” (see this useful post). […]

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