There is a vision of Jesus at table that is much more germane to certain Asian cultures, than to the modern West. It is a meal. It has beauty in it. It is adorned with flowers. These Asian cultures called Jesus’ kind of meals ‘sacrifice’. They amounted to a practice of unbloody sacrifice in the context of a meal.
In the Vedas, there is a focus on the sacrificial offering, to a deity, of rice-barley cakes, of flowers, of fruit. It is an act of gentle wisdom, not of stupid violence. It stems from the attitude known as Ahimsa, or non-injury, non-violence. [Himsa means violence, ‘a’ is a negative prefix.]
It could well be suggested that, at least in the domain of ritual sacrifice, these cultures had reached a level of civilization not (yet) achieved in the west. In Greek and in ancient Jewish cultures, there were rituals of sacrifice other than those known as 'expiatory': they were called sacrifices of celebration and festivity. In some ways they share something of the higher gentleness of the Asian world. (Doniger:1990) (Malina: 1996)
“Sacrifice in this sense is a joyful expression of presence to and with and in God. It is a gift from us to the God who is always present, and a communion granted to us by that same God. The thanksgiving element is primary. It thanks God for life in God. Blood is the locus and sign of life: so blood is used in the sacrifice. It is dynamic, joyous, vivifying. It is a feast. A song of love. An exceptional wine. ‘Un nectar d’orchidees’. Profound joy in mutual recognition. The whole point of it is ‘aimantation’ (the process of loving and being loved) that comes from a holy desire. This love is achieved and consummated in delight, delight in the drawing by the God that makes it all possible. The result is an incorporation: into the people of this God, and into the common (communional) will of both the God and the people together.
It would seem that the Western Christian tradition has not made use of the better practices and interpretations of sacrifice. It has used only one understanding of sacrifice and that perhaps the least appropriate one, to speak of what Jesus did: indeed it is a violent understanding of it. Nor has it really grasped the significance of the meals of Jesus. The result is a very weak version of Jesus, of the mass, and of sacrifice. It is our loss. Perhaps the Eucharist will have its own resurrection, in Asia.
For example, Hindus, even today, have a vigorous priestly ministry. They turned away from killing animals for sacrifice some 2000 years ago, and substituted vegetal offerings for the animals. They moved from the language of fire and sacrifice to a language of hospitality and mealing. This of course implies a change in the logic of what it means to be human. Any cycle of violence inherent in blood sacrifice among primitive peoples was broken, not initially by Jesus, but by developments within Asian religions well before him.
Note: Jesus never said he was a victim, or asked for sympathy because he was one.
Comment: We ought not forget the violence also present in many Asian traditions. Recently, in Nepal, 250,000 animals were decapitated in honour of a goddess.
We all hear messages about non-violence these days. They are usually religious, Christian, Jesus messages. At the same time we know that it is hard to live radical non-violence in the public square, the workplace, or even the domestic backyard. There is violence all over the place. Most people have come to a compromise position. They recognize reluctantly the use of some violence to combat evil. Politicians and media people work out of this compromise, and call it ‘realistic’, ‘reasonable’, and ‘normal’. Heads of state, commanders in chief, have sworn to protect and defend their people. On this principle, you could go to war against Hitler or Saddam Hussein, you could drop bombs on Coventry or Dresden or Hiroshima or Al Qaeda hideouts, you could defend your property and fight to save your own life or that of others (and refuse help to refugees and immigrants). Such is life - there’s going to be some violence in it. Obama makes a better public pitch than Ghandi.
It seems to me that generally speaking clergy (bishops, priests) – who are presumably respectable people - have accepted this line, and live it and preach it. ‘You can only do so much…’ They would not say so, but they find the historical Jesus a real embarrassment. WWJD? What would Jesus do? I think it would be none of the above things. He would remain non-violent, turn the other cheek, die again if necessary, in vulnerable love, in the face of violence. It was because he was like that that his meals were different, that his ‘sacrifice’ was quite different. This I think is at the bottom of different views of Eucharist and priesthood (precisely as sacrifice AND meal). Jesus never said, ‘Do what everyone thinks is realistic, in conformity with them’. He said, ‘Do THIS in memory of ME’. Compromise is not AHIMSA. This ritual, this evening, is the feast of AHIMSA.