Sacrifice is essential for life. We see it all around us all the time. The problem lies not in its existence, but in the fact that we have forgotten the original meaning of the word and that means that we don’t know how to deal with it
As you most likely know, the word ‘sacrifice’ comes from the Latin meaning ‘to make sacred’. Today we go through many sacrifices without thinking there is anything sacred about them. And perhaps there isn’t, but when you stop to think about it, they often turn out to be a significant part of your individuation process, what we call maturation. But right now I am thinking about it from a Christian point of view which I think you will see is not significantly different from the psychological except that the religious standpoint adds a minor factor called immortality, at least of a sort, what we might call ‘survival.’ Let me explain.
Going back to earliest times we have the Egyptian myth of Osiris, his wife Isis, their sons Horus and Seth. It seems that in the earliest times, this myth did not contain the idea of sacrifice because Egyptian myth was not concerned with it since they were mostly concerned with the preservation of life by blending it with death which under proper conditions could be also a continuation of life. Later the idea of sacrifice came into their religious outlook which soon spread into the surrounding cultures and ultimately became an important aspect of Christianity. You can see its beginnings in the myth of Osiris being cut into pieces with Isis seeking him throughout the Egyptian area. In our secular age we do not see this so much as sacrifice, but more as murder, since we no longer believe in sacrifice as a spiritual act. This is similar to the myth of Demeter and Persephone. Plants must be destroyed by those who will guarantee their rebirth (the farmer) in order to preserve both our life and theirs. In sacrifice we must destroy life in order to preserve it. In hunting societies, animals are said to give up their life in return for our guaranteeing their rebirth, as among the Ainu.
There is only one absolute requirement: it must be done in full consciousness. Osiris must have known (after all, he was a god) that his body was about to be destroyed. Persephone must have known (after all she was a goddess) that eating the pomegranate seed would mean that she would have to return — after all, she was a maturing young lady who didn’t want to remain for all eternity under her mother’s wing, and being queen of Hades can’t be all bad. And Abraham now was certain that he could accomplish his goal by substituting the death of an animal for his son, and he might even have assumed that this would guarantee the rebirth of the animal just as he had intended the same for his son. Conscious sacrifice guarantees results; unconscious sacrifice guarantees only the suffering that may lead to learning the lessons needed to acquire the needed consciousness. This is what lies behind one of the most important myths that entered Christianity in its early centuries, although in some Christian areas, mostly the Protestant, it has been largely forgotten. It is the myth behind Twelfth Night, or Epiphany, which falls on January 6.
In Orthodox areas, and many Roman Catholic countries such as Mexico, gifts are not given at Christmas but on Twelfth Night since that is when the gifts were given to the Christ child. One may, after all, have a Shower for a mother on the birth of a child, but one would be much more likely to wait a while before giving gifts to the child. With that in mind, 12th night would make more sense for giving gifts to children in our secular world. There is a small coterie of apparent believers in this myth that can be seen when Christmas lights are turned off in January. Secularists turn theirs off about January 2, believers turn theirs off after January 6. After all, if you want the gifts of the Wise Men, you must keep that star lit until they can reach you with those gifts, and that’s Twelfth Night. But just what were those gifts? Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The Wise Men are supposed to have been Magi, Persian Zoroastrian fire worshipers to whom these articles had other meanings, namely they wanted not to worship the Christ, but to find out what this bright star was signifying, and if it was a child, what did this mean? Was he a god (frankincense), a king (gold) or a physician (myrrh)? Which gift would he accept? He accepted all of them. So they assumed he was all three. Their religion was at that time primarily a medical religion for healing the body. But when St. Matthew wrote his gospel, he had other things in mind. To him it meant what it has come to mean in the Catholic and Orthodox churches ever since. It represents sacrifice, one of the most important concepts of Christianity. Christ was being given three gifts which he would have to sacrifice at considerable cost during his lifetime on earth in order to achieve his goals on earth — something that is also true for every believing Christian. During one’s time on earth, one must consciously sacrifice these three things: Wealth (gold) — this is what the story of the widow’s mite means. This is the original meaning of Collection as a part of church services. Remember, it is voluntary, thus to be done in full consciousness. That is what Christ meant when he spoke of the rich man passing through the Needle’s Eye. Christ had to give that up as far as we can tell when he reached age 30, for that is the age at which the Gospels begin. From that point on, he was dependent on others. Secondly: Power, kingship (frankincense). He claimed he was king but not of this world, but still for that reason he was crucified, even though the Roman power was not willing to indict him. The Jews brought his death about because King Herod feared rebellion. This enabled him to sacrifice the power of kingship in order to attain the sacrifice of his body necessary to achieve immortality, but it was not an easy sacrifice for him especially since it had to be done consciously. Third: Since myrrh is used primarily for incense in the West (it was a medicinal plant for the Persians) Christianity looks upon it as spirit in the sense of atmosphere. When in Church with incense in the atmosphere one can understand why we sometimes use the word atmosphere to mean spirit. The atmosphere of a particular place is actually the spirit of a place. So incense symbolizes the body being an actual part of the spirit, surrounded and imbued by it. Myrrh is an incense which has little about it that is sweet, but it is pungent. This is spirit. This oneness with spirit has to be sacrificed at some point in our life — as Meister Eckhardt wrote: There is nothing more sorrowful than the leaving of god for God. And Eckhardt is no polytheist. This Christ found at his most dreaded moment, when he cried out: “Oh God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” This was the final sacrifice made for him by his god, who by abandoning him, left him open for his return as spirit, and his everlasting life. By the term ‘his god’, I do not mean that his god was not God, but remember that even Satan helped in the enabling process with the three temptations. ‘His god’ was the spirit of life and love who enables us all, if we wish to make the necessary sacrifice.
So sacrifice is a Christian idea which has been around for about 3000 years, and is common to both hunting and planting societies. It states that death need not be permanent, but can not be avoided without consciousness. It is true that these sacrifices are made by everyone at death, but unless they are made consciously, they are not ‘made sacred.’
We have not only forgotten why man’s life should be sacrificial, but we have forgotten how sacrificial it actually is. Indeed, life in matter is itself a sacrifice for soul. Separation is itself a sacrifice of oneness. It is a training in the opposites. We live a separate life in order to know better the meaning of a spiritual life. It is learning by experiencing the opposites. So in attaining anything on this earth we must sacrifice something else, its opposite. To become something we must give up hope of becoming something else. To attain a body, we must sacrifice spirit. If we want both, say, a spiritual body, we should have to give up one or the other. This is impossible, at least without divine intervention. So it seems that the Mysteries are becoming individual instead of collective. The Church has always radically opposed the Mysteries, insisting that Christianity is not a Mystery religion as the Gnostics would have it, but it is now becoming a Mystery religion simply because it can no longer maintain the historicity of its doctrine. St. Malachy may have been right after all; the next pope may be the last. The Christ may continue as Paraclete or daimon, also the Virgin, but both must accept the entire gamut of all points of view. Christ must no longer turn his back on his brother as he did at the three Temptations. As you can see, this religion is not one of merely sweetness and light. Consciousness, as Prometheus knew, is fire, and we must suffer as he did for stealing that fire from the gods. Consciousness is the most cherished dream of the soul — the day is the dream of the night. As the Bushman said, “There is a dream dreaming us.”