Searching for Our Human Face: The Subversion of Pagan Sacrifice

by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.

In Martha Nussbaum’s The Fragility of Goodness and then in Love’s Knowledge, there is an attempt to limn the qualities of excellence and the nature of choice that confront human being. In the latter work, there is a memorable monograph where Nussbaum juxtaposes two possible loves. Odysseus is on the island of Ogygia, beloved by the goddess, Calypso. She is beautiful and life is serene, pleasant, full of lovemaking, beaches, careless, languid repose. Yet Odysseus grieves. He pines for the mortal woman Penelope, though she cannot match the goddess for beauty and Ithaca like all human dwellings, is shadowed by risk, death, and decay. Ogygia offers no opportunity for Odysseus to exercise his wit, to struggle with obstacles and in overcoming them exhibit his own excellence. One sees in Nussbaum’s analysis an instance of the modern critique of transcendence. The goddess is beautiful, but life with her is boring. Eternity is sterile, deity insipid. One can read Homer as both pious towards the gods—and wary. One of the chief epithets for human being is “bread eater.” The gods feast on ambrosia. The life of man is not meant for such nectar. While Homer’s heroes experience the porosity of the pre-modern self, human encounters with the divine are ultimately a doom. In the Iliad, there is a battle in which Zeus’ son, Sarpedon, must die. Zeus loves his son, but the gods, like all other elements of the cosmos, are subject to Ananke. All bow to an inflexible necessity.

This is not all. One of my old professors liked to draw attention to the reconciliation between Priam and Achilles in the old king’s hut. Achilles has slain Hector. He had wished to desecrate the body of Troy’s champion in his fury and thirst for revenge for the death of Patroclus. Yet the gods have intervened and Hector’s body is left inviolate. Returning the dead to a sorrowing father, Achilles is surprised. Both men marvel at each other. A strange beauty, fragile, enigmatic, and noble is at play. Homer hints that this recognition in the hut is hidden from the gods. Hans Urs Von Balthasar draws attention to a moment in Euripides’ Hippolytus, where the youth is dying. He is special to Artemis, but the goddess must flee at the approach of death. It is a darkness repugnant, perhaps inscrutable to Olympian divinity.

John Milbank and David Bentley Hart have both accentuated the sacrificial exchange of antique, tragic wisdom. The orderly, Apollonian city is continually imperiled by entropic chaos. The infinite is not perceived as a romantic excess, let alone the Christian identification with hyperformal perfect Being. For antiquity, the infinite is always destructive, the enemy of form. In tragedy, the beautiful, noble thing is offered up, swallowed, expunged so that the city will remain—for a while, until another victim is needed. Never undoes the Once. The rest weep and survive. It would be wrong to deny the insight, the dexterous high art of the tragedians. Yet from Jerusalem comes another song. From this barbarous, tribal people, who frequently did not understand the divine singer who wooed them, a quite distinct, radically comic wisdom arises. The essence of Jewish sacrifice was counter to the pagan purchase of order at the price of ultimate nullity for the victim. The unblemished lamb was not reduced to ashes and nothingness. Instead, the holocaust of the sacrifice was understood as a mode of translation whereby the earthly vessel was able to enter heavenly precincts.

Here is Hart on the subversive meaning:

Such is sin: suppression of the gift, so that distance becomes absence, without substance, without presence; for presence and substance are effects of a certain style of transmission, a certain charitable measuring out of all the intervals of created being, and when sin corrupts the language of giving, the gift is lost. In God, though, nothing is lost, and the substance of hope lies in the knowledge that God has given—and will give—again. (The Beauty of the Infinite, p. 268)

Here, the “bread-eaters” are the wayward Israel in the desert, gathering manna. In Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, Brant Pitre delineates the fascinating and multiple strands of tradition that link Christ’s offer of his body and blood in bread and wine with Old Testament antecedents. Malchizedek, who first offers such a sacrifice in the presence of Abraham was held by ancient Jewish tradition to be Noah’s son Shem. Manna, called the bread of angels (Ps. 78:25), was believed to be a heavenly reality, reserved in a celestial temple. (There is much more in Pitre’s work; have a look.) But note the difference in vision. For Homer and sympathetic moderns, the gods are destructive of human excellence. For the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Eucharist is the sacred meal that initiates theosis. Far from vitiating human excellence, it is the seed of renewal, the beginning of all things made new. It is a revelation of what it truly means to be human. As Irenaeus proclaims of Christ and of all those who will be in Christ: “The glory of God is a man fully alive.”

(Go to “Liturgy of the Wilderness”)

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