Sometimes the readings from the Office of Readings really grab me. (This is the best reason to invest in the 4 volume set of the Liturgy of the Hours. Or a portable electronic device that lets you read the Office of readings from iBreviary.) This was especially true of this sermon by Saint Peter Chrysologus from Tuesday’s Office. (Office of Readings for May 17, 2011)
Listen now to what the Apostle urges us to do. I appeal to you, he says, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice. By this exhortation of his, Paul has raised all men to priestly status.
How marvellous is the priesthood of the Christian, for he is both the victim that is offered on his own behalf, and the priest who makes the offering. He does not need to go beyond himself to seek what he is to immolate to God: with himself and in himself he brings the sacrifice he is to offer God for himself. The victim remains and the priest remains, always one and the same. Immolated, the victim still lives: the priest who immolates cannot kill. Truly it is an amazing sacrifice in which a body is offered without being slain and blood is offered without being shed.
The Apostle says: I appeal to you by the mercy of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice. Brethren, this sacrifice follows the pattern of Christ�s sacrifice by which he gave his body as a living immolation for the life of the world. He really made his body a living sacrifice, because, though slain, he continues to live. In such a victim death receives its ransom, but the victim remains alive. Death itself suffers the punishment. This is why death for the martyrs is actually a birth, and their end a beginning. Their execution is the door to life, and those who were thought to have been blotted out from the earth shine brilliantly in heaven.
Paul says: I appeal to you by the mercy of God to present your bodies as a sacrifice, living and holy. The prophet said the same thing: Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but you have prepared a body for me. Each of us is called to be both a sacrifice to God and his priest. Do not forfeit what divine authority confers on you. Put on the garment of holiness, gird yourself with the belt of chastity. Let Christ be your helmet, let the cross on your forehead be your unfailing protection. Your breastplate should be the knowledge of God that he himself has given you. Keep burning continually the sweet smelling incense of prayer. Take up the sword of the Spirit. Let your heart be an altar. Then, with full confidence in God, present your body for sacrifice. God desires not death, but faith; God thirsts not for blood, but for self-surrender; God is appeased not by slaughter, but by the offering of your free will.
Reading this for some reason I suddenly thought of St Maria Goretti. She’s one of those saints I just have never been able to get. And something has always bothered me about the way she’s usually presented. The death before dishonor motif doesn’t inspire me.
But as I pondered this reading suddenly it seemed that just about every commentary I�ve read about her gets it wrong. She�s not a saint because she defended her bodily purity, because she preferred death to violation, because she resisted rape. No, she�s a saint because she offered herself as a sacrifice for the sake of him who would have violated her. Her martyrdom is only incidentally about sexual violation and primarily about how much she loved and forgave her tormenter.
I�ve always thought of it in terms of a sort of self-love: She wanted to remain pure. But really it is about a denial of self. Not death before dishonor. Any woman could do that. But it is that her death was a sacrifice, that she united her death to that of Christ on the cross and she offered it on behalf of the man who killed her. That he wanted to rape her is only the proximate cause of her death, not the cause of her sanctity.
�Let your heart be an altar. Then, with full confidence in God, present your body for sacrifice. God desires not death, but faith; God thirsts not for blood, but for self-surrender; God is appeased not by slaughter, but by the offering of your free will.�
Maria Goretti had faith. She surrendered herself, offered her free will. It is not her blood or her sexual innocence which was a pleasing gift but her love for her tormentor. She loved him as Christ loved him and she gave up her life so that he might be saved. And in fact her sacrifice was efficacious. She appeared to him in a dream and let him know that she forgave him. Then he converted. In fact he was there is the crowd at her canonization. What an emblem of God’s loving mercy!