Sacrifice. Talk about a loaded word that we tend to use too lightly.
I've always been fascinated by the animal sacrifices of old. (Santeria and a few other religious still practice it on a smaller scale.) In cultures that lived so close to the earth and whose resources were almost exclusively physical--and small--animal sacrifice must have been a huge deal. Imagine looking around your home and having to decide which highly useful thing you'd have to put on the fire to appease your god. Your car? Your refrigerator? One of the children you'd borne to help you plow your fields? What a freaking nightmare it must have been.
Fortunately (or unfortunately) religious bureaucracy got involved pretty quickly, and one was allowed to buy a critter outside the doors of the temple or just offer up money to win the favor of the gods. (I'm nominally versed in Judeo/Christian/Greek/Roman traditions only. I know animal and human sacrifices continued in some other cultures well after the Common Era began.) Sometimes it's hard to keep in mind that churches and their ilk are very human institutions. But at least our sacrifices finally became a little intellectualized.
Whether or not you practice a religion of any sort, you've no doubt heard of Mardi Gras, Ash Wednesday, and Lent. (If you're curious about reasons, origins, etc., this site, The Voice, has a good brief description of the season.) I was raised as a Roman Catholic, and so it's always been a part of my life--but I never really understood Lent until I became an adult. It's my personal opinion that God isn't particularly concerned with or impressed by our willingness to give up cigarettes/chocolate/snack food/booze or television. Also that God isn't standing in the need of our prayers. Prayer and sacrifice are meant to do two things: To help us press the pause button on the frenzy of our lives, to turn our focus inward; at the same time, they turn our focus outward, so that life becomes about something bigger than our selfish selves.
In other words, I would encourage anyone and everyone to dive right into Lent. (I know that's some kind of heresy, but fortunately the Inquisition is out of business.)
Back in Virginia, I knew an eight year-old girl who gave up adding salt to her food for Lent. This child adores salt. She salts EVERYTHING. It makes her happy. She'd been well-schooled by her parents and church in the religious reasons for participating in Lent. And children aren't actually required to fast or give things up. But she did it anyway. I admire her so much for her choice. She delayed gratification--something that's very difficult for children. She learned a heck of a lot about self-discipline.
Of course, she'll probably never have to learn to go without food for several days like so many millions of people in the world. That's true deprivation, not delayed gratification or sacrifice. But she matured from the experience, and one hopes that it has made her a more thoughtful, disciplined, and compassionate human being.
No matter how prosperous or clever we are, the occasional denial of our own desires isn't a bad thing. It keeps us squared with reality. Keeps us balanced.
Some people take a positive action approach to Lenten disciplines. They diet, exercise, read scripture, spend dedicated time doing volunteer work. Being a workaholic at heart, I highly approve of these kinds of disciplines. Though they're often much more difficult to achieve, they're awfully rewarding. But the Roman Catholic part of me always gravitates toward denial.
I think the self-denial part of me is what guided me into my Wardrobe by Sam project, which I ended on Ash Wednesday. For five months, I deprived myself of clothes that I treasured--clothes by which I measured myself. I wore only WalMart/Sam's Club discount clothes. I had planned to do it for a year, but I found that the notion of doing it that long had been a completely arbitrary choice. I--and my family--might have been better served if I had said, "I'll do this until I've learned everything I can from it." Of course being able to buy whatever I wanted to wear from WalMart and Sam's Club for any amount of time was hardly deprivation--but it was self-denial. Among so many other things, that strange little project did one very significant thing for me: It broke the false relationship I had with clothing--the one that told me that how much something cost was important. Funny the idols we choose to shape for ourselves.
The self-denial gene is also telling me not to eat sugary stuff for the next forty days and to stay away from social networking every day of the week except Friday. I'm spending my social networking time writing. And the no sugar thing? All that blogging and WalMart shopping shifted my focus away from taking care of myself physically. Time to get that back into balance, too.
But I started this blog out with the word sacrifice, didn't I?
Sacrifice is a big, important word. Sacrifice is not theoretical, or pretty, or even always necessary. Sacrifice is real, and it's happening every day in our world. For us, it's an act that combines bravery, foolhardiness, and passion. When I think about true sacrifice, I think about the men, women and families who dedicate themselves to military life, police and firemen, and the those who travel far out of their comfort zones to nurse and educate and feed people at great personal risk. I think about people who--sometimes just for an instant--put the person beside them first. They're people who have a very broad definition of the word friend.
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13