The Art of Sacrifice
We're heading into Week Three of the Lenten season, a time when many Christians who vowed to sacrifice something in the weeks leading up to Easter are probably checking their calendars: Yep, 33 days to go.
To re-cap: On Ash Wednesday, many people decide to give up something they enjoy, or try harder to do something for others, for almost seven weeks. It’s meant to remind them of the 40 days in the desert that Jesus spent fasting in spiritual solitude as he prepared for his final journey to the cross.
But sacrifice doesn’t have to mean pain, says Tony Cortese, director of Ignatian Spirituality at SCU’s Ignatian Center. To Cortese, Lenten sacrifice can and should be an opportunity to grow and reflect on where we are in life, how we can change, and how we can improve. We recently sat down with him to talk about that—and a few other Lenten mysteries.
People often couple Lent with the word sacrifice, but you’re not a fan of the word “sacrifice.” Why?
For some reason, I experience the word sacrifice to be something that is draining. It strips me of something. So that’s why I prefer to say commitment; for me it’s a much more positive way of approaching any season of life. There is commitment involved in love, and there is commitment involved in something like Lent. If the term “sacrifice” works for someone, that’s great. I would just encourage those who like using the term to check in with themselves about what it really means to them.
In the Christian world, the sacrifice of Jesus is spoken of quite often. And unfortunately it can be weaponized to guilt us into a sacrificial response. How many times have we heard something like, “You better behave yourself. Don’t you remember what Jesus did for you?” My experience of the Jesus story is that it is not a story of atonement (i.e. God needing a sacrifice to make things right), but it was simply an authentic expression of inclusive love.
For so much of human history, we were sacrificing animals, sacrificing humans, but a lot of this story about Jesus is God saying, “No, no. I don’t demand these sacrifices. I just want love.”
Is Lent meant to be something we do for ourselves, or for others?
You’re highlighting this tension where people could take one path where they’re really focused on their own personal salvation, whatever that means to someone.
And then there can be an approach to Lent where perhaps someone is making these sacrifices or commitments, but with a focus on the common good.
If it’s just about giving up a certain thing during Lent as a way of getting into “heaven,” then personally, I don’t want any part of that. I don’t want any part of a God who is demanding me to do these things to earn a “reward.”
But if I am open to commitments I can make during this time that are going to help free me up so that I can love more fully, so that I can show up better in my local community, or perhaps set aside some money in my budget for the greater good, I definitely gravitate toward that.
What are you giving up?
I’m actually setting aside some money every week to donate to my three favorite organizations, and one of those is the Kino Border Initiative, which is a bi-national organization that aims to make migration between the U.S. and Mexico more humane. I chose to give to KBI because of my involvement with faculty and staff whom I accompany there on immersions.
Also, I’m not a big drinker, but I’m usually a little more mindful during Lent about having a drink when I go out to a restaurant. So I’ll set aside some of that money that I would have spent on drinks.
During Lent, we may stumble and not make good on our commitment, as you’d say. What then?
So, in the middle of Lent, if your commitment is wavering, that’s a natural feeling. We’re human. We get distracted. Life gets in the way sometimes. If it’s possible, I would encourage us to engage in a spiritual practice that is going to help you return to the commitment, to the freedom that you want.
I think many people have this really beautiful inner desire of seeing Lent as an opportunity for themselves to take a little inventory on how their lives are going and how they are loving and showing up in the world.
One parent told me Ash Wednesday and Lent is a chance to pause and take a look at how they are doing as a parent right now. Will they remember to take this pause every day? I’m sure they will try, and some days will probably be better than others. We may stumble, but with trust, we can get back up again.
Can you offer some scriptural support for Jesus’ retreat to the desert?
One of the things we keep seeing that Jesus did is he often goes out by himself on retreat. He gets away, and I really think he’s recharging, because sometimes it probably felt like work for him, or it felt like a sacrifice that was painful, and he had to return to his source (see Luke 4:1-2, 14-15; Mark 6:30-32, Matthew 14:1-13, Luke 6:12-13, Luke 22:39-44, Luke 5:16). In a way, that’s what we are doing during Lent.
I think we have a sincere affection for what Jesus is communicating here during the 40 days. And there was something significant about going into the wilderness. Some scripture scholars will say it’s entirely symbolic, like they are talking about a spiritual desert or wilderness. They’re not talking about him doing this physical thing. I kind of gravitate to both: Jesus made a retreat and he spent some time alone with God and nature, and learning how to rely and trust in God.
Mar 7, 2023
Photo courtesy of iStock.