When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name and say to the priest in office at the time, “I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come to the land the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God. Then you shall declare before the Lord your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.” Place the basket before the Lord your God and bow down before him. Then you and the Levites and the foreigners residing among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household. (Deuteronomy 26:1-11)
This text describes the purpose and the basic structure of Israel’s worship. God gave the unexpected and free gift of a new life to a group of stateless persons, making of them a people with a special relationship to him and giving them a “land of milk and honey” to live in. The members of the nation are invited to respond to this divine initiative by showing their gratefulness, and to do so by returning to God part of what God has given them. But how can we give a present to the invisible God? Here is where the institution of organized worship comes in, to enable human beings to make a symbolic offering to God and in this way to express their relationship to him.
And so, at harvest time, the farmer takes part of the fruits of the earth and brings them to a place consecrated to God, a sanctuary or temple. He gives them to a man set apart for this, a priest, who accepts the offering in the Lord’s name and transmits it symbolically to God by placing it on the altar, a meeting-place between heaven and earth. Then, the gift is made to disappear in one way or another, by burning or by consuming it. This return to God of gifts God has given, known in the Bible as a sacrifice, expresses and reinforces the bonds between the participants. It reawakens hope that God will always be there for his faithful and that he will continue to take care of them. They are made aware that, in the final analysis, everything is a gift and that the ultimate meaning of their existence does not lie in their own efforts but in the trust that God is constantly leading and protecting them.
Consequently, for the people of the Bible offering sacrifices is not a burdensome duty, still less something painful, but a joyful time when their bonds with the Wellspring of life are renewed: “Then you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you….” Going to the Temple means recalling the important moments of the past, expressing one’s present gratefulness and trust in God and, as a result, reinforcing one’s hope in the future. In addition, it means having a tangible experience of one’s fellowship with the rest of the faithful.
Far from eliminating this dimension of existence, the coming of Jesus the Messiah only makes it more concrete. Jesus does not give any material—and therefore symbolic—presents to the One he calls Father. No, his entire existence is a gift to the Father, expressed by a life for others and recapitulated by his death on the cross. As the Letter to the Hebrews puts it: “He sacrificed once and for all when he offered himself” (7:27; see also 9:25-26; 10:10). And we in our turn are invited to make our lives a gift. Paul writes to the Christians of Rome: “I urge you to offer yourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (Romans 12:1). Believers know that everything is a gift and, as a result, their sole desire is to give everything back to the One who bestows an abundance of material and spiritual blessings.
Is it possible to live in thankfulness? Why is it often easier to ask God for something than to thank God for the good things we have received?
By what attitudes and activities can I make my life into an offering to God?
How can we understand, in this context, the words “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13)?