“I have seen Satan fall like lightning”: What Does it Mean to Speak of Sacrifice?

(This is Neil.) I will probably provide excerpts or summaries from some of the papers presented at the meeting of the Colloquium on Religion and Violence earlier this year in Amsterdam. But, for now, we can look at a short homily delivered as part of the proceedings by the Jesuit theologian Robert Daly.

Fr Daly focuses on Luke 10, particularly where Jesus says, “I have seen Satan fall like lightning from the sky.” What does the end of the dominion of Satan mean? Daly says, “Sacrifice, in its old, traditional sense, just doesn’t work any more.”

But, if that is true, what do we mean when we speak of the sacrifice of Christ, which is re-presented in what we can consequently call the sacrifice of the Eucharist?

Fr Daly suggests that there is a “special Christian meaning of sacrifice,” distinct from sacrifice in the “history-of-religions sense of the word,” and this meaning actually “practical” and “very down-to-earth.” He will even give us a “little story.”

Before I share part of his homily, I want to ask a question about his story. It is clear that Fr Daly wants to get away from the “history-of-religions” definition of sacrifice as “a gift to God in which the gift is destroyed or consumed” that would direct our attention to the cruel torture of Jesus on the Cross (see an earlier piece in America here). Instead, he claims, the “Christian meaning of sacrifice” should draw us to the free and self-giving response of the Son to the Father, a response that we ourselves can enter into through the Holy Spirit.

But it would seem that the response of the Son to the Father necessarily involves suffering because of the world to which he was sent. I think that Fr Daly’s analogy should involve “the woman” continuing to love “the man” despite his inability to recognize her love, and suffering his rejection and condemnation. But, ultimately, she enables him to return her love through coming back to show him the wounds that he himself inflicted, yet still forgiving him in spite of them.

Would this change the thrust of the “little story”? (Daly does point out that their relationship is initially “self-serving” for the man.)

Here, then, is Fr Robert Daly, SJ:

I’m struggling now to turn this lecture into a homily, so, bear with me a bit more.

Of the many meanings that sacrifice has—and almost any use of the word involves several of these meanings, all overlapping and intermingling with each other, there is one special, specifically and uniquely Christian meaning. Skipping over lots of exposition, in order to get past the lecture and into the homily, this special Christian meaning of sacrifice, unveiled to us in the Christ-event, can be summarized as follows;

Authentic Christian sacrifice begins with the self-gift/self-offering of the Father in the sending of the Son. It continues in what we can metaphorically call a second “moment” in the totally free, totally loving, self-offering “response” of the Son, in his humanity, and in the Holy Spirit, to the Father and for us. This now begins to be Christian sacrifice when we, in a kind of third “moment,” in the power of the very same Spirit that was in Jesus, begin to enter into that profoundly interpersonal relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit that is the very life of God. In other words, authentic Christian sacrifice is the ultimate, joyously fulfilling perfection of loving interpersonal being.

Put that way, it sounds forbiddingly abstruse. Forgive me! I’m a theologian. I can’t help myself.

But actually, it’s something very practical, very down-to-earth, and something that you all already know, and know by personal experience. If that were not so, you wouldn’t even be here. One little story will show what I mean.

It’s the story of a man. But it could be the story of a woman; change the sex and some insignificant details and the point is the same. This man is young, strong, and bright. He’s in confident control of his own life and of the things and of the people in his life. Everything and everyone around him is to be used, as he wills and for his own pleasure. But then one day, he notices that this woman, whom he is stringing along in a self-serving relationship, is really in love with him. She is offering herself to him totally, holding nothing back. Because he’s smart, he knows he is now faced with a decision. He can continue to string her along, maybe letting all the world think that they are in a nice, mutually self-giving relationship, enjoying it for what is there, but ready to break it off whenever it suits him. Or, he can begin to return that love, begin to give himself in return. If he does, he knows that he is making himself vulnerable, just as she is. If he does, he knows he is saying goodbye to his former gods of power, control, and me-first self-indulgence. He is putting himself in position to become a victim.

But if he does choose to begin to return love, he senses that he is entering into something that is also gloriously fulfilling. It is the something that lies behind all the love stories one encounters in novels, film and TV, even the mindless situation comedies. It is the kind of happiness and personal fulfillment that, up to now, he thought existed only in the minds of foolish, unrealistic dreamers. But precisely that is what is now, actually, being offered to him.

People across all nations, cultures, and religions are constantly being faced with this kind of choice. When they say yes to genuine, self-giving love, the Christian theologian will say that they are accepting the invitation to begin to share in the perfection of the interpersonal love of Father, Son and Spirit. The Girardian will say that they are beginning to dismantle the scapegoat mechanism. But however it is described, whenever people really say yes to love, then, indeed, Satan is falling like lightning from the sky. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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7 Responses to “I have seen Satan fall like lightning”: What Does it Mean to Speak of Sacrifice?

  1. Liam says:

    I am glad the homilist avoided straining to denude sacrifice of its layers of meanings, because even some of those pre-Christian layers have been understood has having been baptized, as it were, in the Paschal Mystery and Pentecostal Mission. Our Lord himself clearly intended that. But not only that. And not necessarily starting with that, as the homilist describes well.

    It’s when homilists and theologians seem to be straining those layers of meaning out of the word that I sense something other than the Spirit’s handiwork. Especially when it’s couched in assumptions (as I’ve heard it often enough) in the vicinity of “the early Church wasn’t burdened by the theological developments that came later, and we should try to recover that pristineness….”

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Thanks for writing. It’s true that nobody is served by approaching this issue without nuance and caution.

    But Fr Daly would want us to avoid at least one way of speaking about sacrifice. In his America article, he writes:

    A common definition of sacrifice is “a gift to God in which the gift is destroyed or consumed.” Symbolizing the internal offering of commitment and surrender to God, its purpose is to acknowledge the dominion of God, effect reconciliation with God and give thanks for blessings or petition for further blessings. This isn’t bad. It may be what most people think of when they hear the word “sacrifice.” But as a definition of Christian sacrifice, it is a disaster.

    Daly, I think, worries about certain conceptions that begin by “focusing first on the gift that is destroyed” to reconcile us with the Father, and end up with theories of the Father sending the Son to be so destroyed to satisfy His wrath or Jesus somehow staging his own self-destruction to save us from an angry Father.

    Perhaps we can look at the history of this conception some other time.

    Daly would say that we have to begin by remembering sacrifice as a Trinitarian event – we focus on the Father’s self-offering, the Son’s loving response, and our entrance into this through the Spirit. Of course, this will involve suffering … but the change in emphasis is a significant one.

    Thanks again.


  3. Liam says:

    What I read Daly doing is not so much avoiding as re-ordering and amplifying. Avoiding is usually a way to confusion. It would seem to me to be better to, at some non-evasive point, discuss what of what is called the theology of atonement is authoritatively taught by the Roman Catholic Church and what isn’t. But avoidance, elision or silence is not credible in light of the developed theology of the Church. Especially by people representing themselves as Catholic theologians. (That’s not to say that they simply echo what the Church says. It is to say that they must also endeavor present where it has developed to this point forthrightly in its own terms – truth in labelling, as it were. And not put words in the Church’s mouth. Which I don’t see Daly doing, but I have witnessed others doing on this subject.)

  4. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Perhaps “avoiding” is the wrong word – Fr Daly is not being evasive, but clear in his criticism of some theologies of atonement (which I briefly described in my earlier response). I do not think that the Catechism’s mention of Jesus as a “living victim, holy and pleasing to God” necessarily commits one to these particular theologies.

    The problems with them are discussed in a March 2007 article in Theological Studies by Daly. The two main problems are that they:

    1. Introduce “an inter-Trinitarian tension” with “a selfless Messiah over against a God who must be paid off.” We must instead remember that when the Father sends the Son, he sends himself.

    2. Introduce the “absolutization” of violence, as suffering, rather than love, becomes salvific. Daly instead wishes to assert that “suffering and the violence that causes it is a consequence of union with God, not the means to it.”

    Would you agree that these theologies of atonement, although suggested by the “history-of-religions” definition of sacrifice, are “disastrous” for Christian theology?


  5. Liam says:

    I don’t have an opinion on that; I guess I’m from Missouri in this case. It’s never occurred to me that it in and of itself is “disastrous”. I’ve heard the assertion but not seen the proof vis-a-vis what the Church authoritatively teaches (as I’ve noted above). So, I am looking for someone (not necessarily you or Daly) to lay that all out, in an unbiased untendentious fashion. From my perspective, it’s asserted, not proved. I am open to proof. But the proof must amply account for authoritative Church teaching.

  6. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    I think that Daly would point you to the work of the late Edward Kilmartin, SJ, and Stephen Finlan’s recent Problems with Atonement: The Origins of, and Controversy about, the Atonement Doctrine. And, anthropologically speaking, Rene Girard.

    I don’t necessarily see any conflict with authoritative Church teaching. In an earlier article in Theological Studies, after defining sacrifice in a Christian sense – “the self-offering of the Father in the gift of his Son, and in the second place the unique response of the Son in his humanity to the Father, and in the third place, the self-offering of believers in union with Christ by which they share in his covenant relation with the Father” – Fr Daly writes:

    “This is the central reality and meaning of Christian sacrifice. It is, I think, what Trent was groping toward, but was unable to express, when it declared the Mass to be a true and proper (verum et proprium) sacrifice.”

    Thank you.


  7. Liam says:

    Thank you very much, Neil.

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