Please consider the following reflection more of a pastoral meditation than a formal exegesis. I do not seek here to compare every use of the phrase in the Scriptures but rather to ponder how we seem to have lost the connection of personal sacrifice to liturgy and worship. Scripture clearly connects them. Let’s look at a few examples from Scripture and then examine how we have strayed from the concept.
So Jesus … suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore, let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God (Heb 13:12-16).
The fundamental principle is that praise (or worship) is connected to sacrifice. Scripture notes this in many places, using expressions such as “a sacrifice of praise” and “a sacrifice of thanksgiving.”
On one level, Tradition insists that there be a connection to true worship of God and to living a holy life in charity to the poor.
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (James 1:26-27).
Now consider this, you who forget God, Or I will tear you in pieces, and there will be none to deliver you. He who offers a sacrifice of thanksgiving honors Me. And to him who orders his way aright I shall show the salvation of God (Psalm 50).
Thus, the first meaning of a “sacrifice of praise” is that our worship, our praise and thanksgiving, must flow from a heart that is obedient to God, generous to the poor, and unsullied by worldly affections. There is an intrinsic connection between worship and holiness. The greatest risks of worship and praise are that we think we can use it to “buy God off,” or that mere lip service in worship is sufficient. True worship should lead to integrity, such that we become more and more like the One we praise.
There is also some value in pondering the sacrificial nature of the act of worship/praise itself. This is surely the case for Christ, who as our High priest is also the victim. In the Old Covenant the priest and victim were distinct, but in the New Covenant they are one and the same. Jesus did not offer up some poor animal; He offered Himself. And so, too, for us, who are baptized into the priesthood of Jesus Christ as members of the royal priesthood of the baptized or who are ordained to the ministerial priesthood.
Simply put, our worship and praise does cost something—and it should. It takes some effort; there is a cost to worshiping God in the way He is worthy of. Though it is not easy, it is our obligation; it is something that can and ought to challenge us.
This obligation is underappreciated today, when too often the notion is that “going to Church” should entertain me, feed me, minister to me, and be relevant to me. The focus is on man and what pleases him or is sensible to him, rather than on God. Liturgy today seems far more about man than about God. Modern worship too easily resembles a closed circle in which we congratulate, entertain, and excessively reference one another. Either God is something of an afterthought, or it is presumed that He will be pleased simply by the fact that we are there regardless of what we actually do when there.
The first goal seems to be to please and “reach” the faithful. The faithful are seldom asked to make sacrifices of any sort. For indeed, worship that elevates may also challenge. The challenge might be in listening to the content of the sermon, or ancient language, or complex concepts, or something lasting more than a sound bite. Many Church leaders simply reject what challenges or requires sacrifice on the part of the faithful. Heaven forfend one might be required to attend patiently to the worship of God, or to consider things that are of a higher order than the merely banal, or to devote a little time and study!
If Mass must last no longer than 45 minutes, if sermons ought not challenge, if attending Mass on holy days is “too hard,” then where is the sacrifice? And what about tithing or sacrificial giving? Is the way we worship God merely what pleases me or us? Is the purpose of liturgical music to please and edify me or is it to praise God in a dignified way? Is the liturgy today really about God or is it more about us?
Such a non-sacrificial, misdirected notion of worship is certainly much on display in certain “mega-churches,” whose services resemble rock concerts and motivational talks more than a sacrifice of praise. But these notions have infected the Catholic setting, too, in the ways described above.
Worship should involve work. It is not merely an experience akin to going to a movie or concert and sitting in one’s seat being passively entertained or pleased. Some demands should be made of us beyond the collection plate. Higher things are less easily understood than the merely mundane, and to comprehend them we must be drawn out of our comfort zone and challenged.
I was not born loving either Bach fugues or the intricacies of renaissance polyphony. But, like fine wine, they have attained pride of place in my life—through the power of the liturgy (patiently prayed and experienced) to elevate my mind and personality to higher things. Further, in my earlier years, the joy of gospel music was not relevant to me; today it is. The sacrifice of praise is not, therefore, merely arduous and painful to no end. Like most sacrifices, it brings forth new life.
Mahatma Gandhi (a Hindu) recognized the strange development in the West of worship without sacrifice and called it one of the seven deadly sins of culture. In the West, “going to church” has increasingly come to resemble entertainment. And the attitude seems to be that if things don’t please me and cater to my tastes, I have a perfect right either to go somewhere else or to not go at all.
Where is the sacrifice of praise of which Scripture speaks?
Granted, parishes should strive for excellent liturgy and preaching. Every liturgical aspect should be done well, first and foremost because it is directed to God, who is worthy of our very best. But at the end of the day, no liturgy will be 100% pleasing to everyone. It is not the job of the liturgy to please the faithful. The purpose of the liturgy is to worship God fittingly. It is my task (and dignity) to offer a sacrifice of praise to God the Father through Jesus Christ. Priest and victim are one and the same.
I will end by posing a few questions:
- Do we go to the Mass with the attitude “Peel me a grape” (i.e., please me), or ready to offer God a sacrifice of praise?
- Is our liturgy focused on God or merely on us?
- Do the liturgy and the clergy place proper demands on God’s faithful? Are the faithful willing to accept those demands?
- If you are a priest, whom do you hope to please on Sunday? Is it God or just your parishioners?
- Is God central in our liturgy today? How is He or is He not?
- Are we willing to accept that the primary purpose of the liturgy is not to please us or even to speak in ways relevant to us?
- What do you think it means for you to offer God a sacrifice of praise?
Psalm 116 offers a good description of the attitude we should bring to worship and the Liturgy:
LORD, surely I am Your servant, I am Your servant, the son of Your handmaid, You have loosed my bonds. To You I shall offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving, And call upon the name of the LORD. I shall pay my vows to the LORD, in the presence of all His people … (Psalm 116:16-18).