May 22, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – “Thou wilt be pleased with the sacrifice of justice, oblations and burnt offerings upon Thy altar, Lord” (Ps 50:19). Here the Psalmist teaches us that the Lord desires our sacrifices as long as they are just, and made upon His altar.
What else could this mean, but that He wants us to sacrifice ourselves by living justly and by entering into His sacred mysteries enacted upon the holy altar of the Catholic Church? For it is by the Great Sacrament, the Holy Eucharist, that man offers Himself to God through the offering of Jesus Christ, who alone is perfectly pleasing to the Father.
Since the Eucharist furnishes us with the very pattern of the Christian life, we will find here a lesson about marriage, where spouses must make sacrifices for one another’s good. The sacrament of matrimony is a holy altar upon which man and woman offer themselves up in a love that will consume their hearts as the holy fire beheld by Moses engulfed the bush, yet without destroying it.
This self-offering resembles the purgative stage of the spiritual life. The sacrament of marriage, like the life of prayer, has all three elements: purgation, illumination, and union. Those who have been faithfully married for many years can testify that greater happiness goes hand in hand with greater sacrifice. Union is never a given, to be taken for granted; it is always the fruit of suffering and perseverance.
The ancient Roman Rite has as its opening prayer for Friday after Ash Wednesday: “Watch over the fast we have undertaken, O Lord, and let this bodily penance also be a truly spiritual exercise to make us strong.”
This prayer summarizes Isaiah 58:1–9, where the Prophet stresses that true fasting means the supplanting of our willfulness by the will of God. We are reproved: “Behold in the day of your fast your own will is found and you exact of all your debtors.” The first quality noted about the willful is their preoccupation with exacting debts from debtors, a tendency to keep accounts on the behavior of others. The willful have gotten caught up in the mentality of debt and payment instead of building up the true charity that loves and does not count the cost.
Isaiah teaches here a crucial lesson for the married. To be lived worthily, marriage demands fasting from one’s own will—and yet this fasting must be of the right kind, not used to gain leverage on the other person, becoming an excuse for exacting debts; nor can the fasting be ostentatious and distracting, as in the case of those who “sound a trumpet before them, as hypocrites do in the synagogue and the streets, in order that they may be honored” (Mt 5:43–48, 6:1–4).
In spite of the divine grace which never fails us, who can say that he or she has never fallen along the way, has never sinned in this vale of tears? “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn 1:8). “O Lord, remember not our iniquities of the past; let you mercy come quickly to us, for we are being brought very low. Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of thy name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for thy name’s sake!” (Ps 78:8–9). By ourselves, we are sinners; we are brought low by our faults and our sins, and without God’s mercy coming quickly to us, there is no way for us to live out the vocation to which God is calling us.
There is an aspect of man, a dark double called “the old Adam,” that rebels against the good. It is clear from Isaiah, however, that the solution is not, literally and figuratively speaking, a kind of maceration: “Deal your bread to the hungry, and bring the needy and the harborless into your house; when you shall see one naked, cover him, and despise not your own flesh” (Is 58:7).
What are we doing whenever we strive to make ourselves better, or to help another towards perfection? We are dealing bread to the hungry and covering the naked. Every time we forgive each other, particular in marriage, it is like the dressing of a wound. It is like the noble compassion of the Samaritan who bent down by the side of the road to take up the neglected sufferer. It is by loving the enemy without and within for the love of God—loving the enemy in the only proper way to love him, namely, by leading him to embrace the Gospel—that the acceptable sacrifice, the real effacement of self and the giving of self to the other, takes place and is continually taking place.