The armistice signed on this day one hundred years ago ended a conflict that killed more than sixteen million people.
“Seventy million men took up arms, nine million of them never returned home. More than four times that number had been wounded.
“It was supposed to be ‘the war to end all war.’ Instead, the ‘Great War’ began a cycle of violence that would shape the twentieth century, spawn a cold war that would divide the continent of Europe for half a century, and leave echoes that still reverberate in the twenty-first century,” as historian Joseph V. Micallef writes in Understanding World I: A Concise History.
Christians never welcome or glorify war. The Second Vatican Council states eloquently “Peace on earth, born of love for one’s neighbour, is the sign and the effect of the peace of Christ that flows from God the Father.” (Gaudium et Spes, 78)
However, there is an aspect of the tragedy of war that is closely connected to Christian faith: sacrifice. More specifically, self-sacrifice, which the exotic American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson called the real miracle out of which all others grew.
Let’s look at three aspects of sacrifice this morning. First, the sacrifice of Christ himself, second the Sacrifice of the Mass, and third the daily sacrifice we make of ourselves. And in our reflections we will keep in mind what’s often called “the supreme sacrifice” made in time of war.
Sacrifice jumps off the page of the Lectionary this Remembrance Day Sunday. Our second reading today, from the Letter to the Hebrews, places sacrifice at the heart of Christ’s mission: “he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.”
The letter is contrasting the annual sacrificial offering made by the Jewish High Priest on the Day of Atonement. Obviously the sacrifice is not perfect, for it is repeated year after year. Christ’s sacrifice, by contrast, is perfect and complete.
For the Jewish readers of the Letter to the Hebrews, the importance of this was obvious. They understand the whole notion of sacrifice in a way that we probably do not. The history of the Chosen People is marked by one sacrifice after another—some that pleased God and some that didn’t. In fact, a sacrifice gone wrong was the cause of Cain murdering his brother Abel.
So the notion of a perfect sacrifice was a precious and wonderful thing, as it should be for us. Since the perfect Priest offers the perfect Victim offered specifically for the sins of all, we can have complete confidence that the sacrifice is effective. A few weeks ago our reading from Hebrews underlined this by saying “Let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, that we may receive mercy and find grace in time of need.”
The second aspect of sacrifice we want to look at this morning is its connection to the Eucharist. In the words of the Catechism, we call it “the Holy Sacrifice, because it makes present the one sacrifice of Christ the Savior and includes the Church's offering. The terms holy sacrifice of the Mass, "sacrifice of praise," spiritual sacrifice, pure and holy sacrifice are also used, since it completes and surpasses all the sacrifices of the Old Covenant.” (CCC 1330)
The Mass is “at the same time, and inseparably, the sacrificial memorial in which the sacrifice of the cross is perpetuated and the sacred banquet of communion with the Lord's body and blood. But the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice is wholly directed toward the intimate union of the faithful with Christ through communion. To receive communion is to receive Christ himself who has offered himself for us.” (CCC 1382)
To attend Mass without an awareness of its sacrificial dimension is simply inadequate.
On the other hand, we can’t think of the Mass as if Christ is sacrificing himself over and over again. “The Paschal mystery of Christ is celebrated, not repeated. It is the celebrations that are repeated, and in each celebration there is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that makes the unique mystery present. Our liturgy not only recalls the events that saved us but makes them present. (CCC 1104)
Finally, we need to think about the sacrifice we are called to make of ourselves. The first reading this morning is the story of a woman whose humble sacrifice of the little she has is accepted by God. But there’s more than charity in the story: the woman of Zarephath is prepared for the supreme sacrifice when she agrees to share the little food on which her life depended.
Today we learn a dual lesson: the need for daily sacrifice, for love of neighbour, and the willingness to sacrifice all, should the need arise.
Christian living is sacrificial living, because we are called to imitate Christ who gave himself up for us, as St. Paul tells the Ephesians (5:2).
From its earliest days, the Church has honoured and remembered martyrs, men and women who laid down their lives, sacrificially, for the faith. Not all those who die in war are martyrs, but there are many who willingly put themselves in harm’s way for others, in imitation of Christ who said “No-one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (Jn 15:13)
On Remembrance Day, together with all Canadians, we honour and remember the fallen. But as Catholics we go a step further. We remember and pray for them at Mass today, applying the merits of Christ’s supreme sacrifice to their souls.
I’ll close with a story I have told before. I was walking through the small Commonwealth War Cemetery in Rome, where families were allowed to choose an inscription on the headstone for their loved one who had been killed. Many were touching, like the one that read “Fondly remembered by Mum, Dad, and his little dog Peg.”
But most moving of all was the grave over which was carved the dying words of St. Monica to her son Augustine: “One thing I ask, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord.”
I no longer remember the name of that soldier. But I have prayed for him in the Holy Sacrifice many times since, and will do so again today.