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.