Growing up the third of four boys I have thought long and hard about the story of Cain and Abel.
Beside pondering fraternal conflict and the effects of original sin, the story of the brothers intrigues me with regard to sacrifice. The story is familiar, but consider it here with this in mind.
“Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground” (Gen 4:2). At harvest time, Cain and Abel each offer from their respective yields, “the fruit of the ground” and “firstlings of [the] flock” (4:3-4). Yet, while God looks with favor on Abel’s offering, Cain’s is all but ignored. Feeling jilted, Cain invites his brother out into the field and kills him in a fit of jealous rage. The Lord lays the charge before Cain saying, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground” (4:10). Abel’s blood calls out for justice, crying “Murder!” in condemnation of his brother.
In the saving work of Jesus we are freed from the destructive inclinations that had already corrupted Cain and Abel. We are restored in our relationship to one another and to God. So, in the New Covenant wrought in Christ Jesus, a new worship is established, one that takes up and perfects the sacrifices of the Old Covenant. Over ancient forms departing, newer rites of grace prevail. In this new offering all the previous sacrifices commanded by the Law are consummated in the singular outpouring of Christ’s life on the Cross. His Blood, poured out for many, does not speak accusations, but pleads “Father, forgive them” (Lk 23:34). This merciful and loving gift of the Son to the Father is daily memorialized in our celebration of the Holy Eucharist.
At Mass we acclaim Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and thus recall the Passover Lamb of Exodus. In offering Himself as the spotless lamb, He also incorporates that primordial offering of Abel’s firstlings. Yet, in the Eucharist, we can discover the perfection even of Cain’s sacrifice of grain. At Mass, the priest takes up the gifts and says, “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life;” likewise the wine to be our “spiritual drink.” The Lord consummates the offerings of Cain and Abel by uniting them in the transubstantiation of the offerings of bread and wine into his very own Body and Blood.
Jesus not only divinizes the offerings of Cain and Abel; He even sanctifies the death of Abel and restores the relationship of brothers. The Letter to the Hebrews says,
“[you have approached] Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and the sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel.” (Heb 12:24)
By accepting His execution, betrayed by His friend, Christ conquers death and redeems brotherhood by His total self-offering to the Father. The whole of the Paschal Mystery comes together as the culmination of all that had come before so as to bring grace to all who would follow.
One who lived by this grace in a special way was St. Polycarp of Smyrna, particularly remarkable in his imitation of our Eucharistic Lord. The account of his martyrdom makes note of several circumstances which match his death to the Passion of Christ. They describe him as “being bound like a distinguished ram [taken] out of a great flock for sacrifice, and prepared to be an acceptable burnt-offering unto God” (Martyrdom of Polycarp, 14). Yet when a fire was set to the pyre upon which he stood, “he appeared within not like flesh which is burnt, but as bread that is baked” (Martyrdom, 15), and he was untouched, unsinged, by the flames. To kill him, an executioner pierced his side and out flowed such an abundance of blood that the flames were extinguished.
Polycarp’s blood, like that of His Savior’s, redounded his dying prayer:
“I praise You for all things, I bless You, I glorify You, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, with whom, to You, and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and to all coming ages. Amen.”
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Melchizedek Offering Sacrifice (used with permission).