Giles Fraser Guardian/UK 28 July 2016
The offer of love in return for hate, even to the point of death. This is the horrendous price that peace is sometimes asked to pay.’
When I was first ordained a priest, I would say my prayers every morning in front of three undistinguished stained-glass windows. And every morning, I would argue in my head with the theology those windows were promoting. On the left, Abraham held up a curly knife, preparing to cut the throat of his son who is strapped to an altar. In the middle, Christ hanging on the cross, dripping blood. On the right, a priest, in full liturgical kit, stood behind an altar, hands outstretched over bread and wine. The coloured glass was insisting that these three scenes were intimately connected, that the mass/holy communion/eucharist, whatever you call it, is essentially a sacrifice – and not just some stylised community get-together.
As Pope John Paul II put it in Ecclesia de Eucharistia, the eucharist is “the sacrifice of the cross perpetuated down the age. This sacrifice is so decisive for the salvation of the human race that Jesus Christ … left us a means of sharing in it as if we had been present there”. Catholic Christianity, like that of temple Judaism before it, is a religion of blood and altars.
Father Jacques Hamel’s throat was slit as he said morning mass, murdered by a teenager claiming allegiance to Islamic State. The sacrificial imagery is unavoidable. And soon after his killing, #JeSuisPretre – I am a priest – began trending on social media, employing the now familiar “I am” prefix as an expression of digital solidarity with yet another victim of global terrorism. It felt unusually fitting in this instance. “I am the bread of life,” says Jesus in the first of a series of eight so-called “I am …” passages in John’s gospel. And the bread of life was precisely what Father Jacques believed himself to be distributing that morning on the outskirts of Rouen. He died, as he believed, on his knees – not in supplication to his spotty murderers, but to the author of life itself to whom he was about to return.
Rouen itself is a town soaked in the blood of martyrdom. It was here that another 19-year-old, believing herself to have received visions from God, and believing God to have called her to war, was burned at the stake by the English as a heretic. To some, Joan of Arc was a witness to the one true faith. To others she was a deluded fantasist, using God to inspire acts of violence.
It’s not just Islam that has a problem with violence. Indeed, arguably, the Bible has more violence in it that the Qur’an – though I have never thought the presence of violence in the scriptures a problem per se, because I have never read my scriptures as an instruction manual from God. More a reflection of a historic real-world human struggle for faith, in which faith is discovered. And the difference between good religion and bad religion – like the difference between good and bad people – has little to do with who is right and who is wrong about God and absolutely everything to do with how each religious tradition manages its own propensity for violence.
And it is here that the language of sacrifice is especially tricky. I have no time for the idea that Jesus is sacrificed on the cross to appease an angry God. If that’s true, then God becomes the enemy of humankind and I am against him. No, Jesus absorbs the violence that comes from us not from God. He receives our blows, our punishments, our disdain. And, despite his innocence – or, rather, precisely because of it – he refuses to answer back in kind. No more an eye for an eye.
In other words, the sacrifice of the cross is the non-violent absorption of human violence. The offer of love in return for hate, even to the point of death. This is the horrendous price that peace is sometimes asked to pay. This is what makes the eucharistic sacrifice life-giving and not some historical death cult. And this is the sacrifice that Father Jacques was celebrating as he died. He died as a priest, doing what priests do. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.