I remember hearing a lecture from a humanities professor years ago, who was emphasizing the profound and unique meaning of sacrifice in the Orthodox Christian tradition. He said that there existed various definitions for this word, and thus misunderstandings abounded concerning its meaning. He went on to discuss how in some traditions, sacrifice was understood to be a quid pro quo, where the god or gods were given offerings in exchange for beauty, or health, or wealth, or happiness, or property. He said there are other traditions, too, which had and have understood sacrifice to mean a way of assuaging an angry god or gods. In these faiths, offerings were made to a deity so that we might stay his wrath and indignation There were also other traditions where the notion of sacrifice was understood to be an offering made for the purposes of maintaining equilibrium. In these traditions for instance, a priest might offer a daily sacrifice so that the heavenly bodies would remain in the sky. He explained that all of these different, transactional understandings of sacrifice- an exchange, assuaging an angry god, maintaining equilibrium, etc.- were not the understanding of sacrifice according to the Orthodox tradition. This professor then offered that we can understand the meaning by simply looking to the Hebrew and subsequent Aramaic word for sacrifice. Not having to look far, he said that in the Orthodox traditions where the Aramaic is still used in their liturgies (such as in the Oriental Syriac communities in the Middle East) the word for used for sacrifice is qūrbānā (from the Hebrew ָק ְר ָבן , qorbān). Here he emphasized, the true understanding was revealed. That is, the word for the Eucharistic sacrifice, is qorban. This word he said, meant “nearness,” or “to draw near.” In other words, the idea of sacrifice from the Orthodox, and of the tradition of Israel before it, is to draw near to God.

We can perhaps gain a better understanding by seeing this through the lens of the relationship of marriage. By exclusively choosing to draw near to one person, a spouse sacrifices all the other options around him or her. Of course, while still a sacrifice of other options, this is not experienced as anguish, but as bliss. Seen in another example, in the Jewish tradition for instance, a faithful person keeping the Sabbath and choosing to stay away from work and all other obligations of labor and commerce, instead spends the day focusing on and drawing near to God. That is to say, he draws near to God and sacrifices everything else- the opportunity to make more money, or to expand his business, or to go to parties, or to labor, or travel, and instead draws near to God. This sacrifice, while seen from a worldly perspective as loss, is not however experienced as death, but as life. This is the notion of sacrifice we Orthodox hold. Sacrifice is not a quid pro quo, or away to assuage an angry god, or even an effort to maintain equilibrium in the cosmos. Sacrifice for us is to draw near to the Bridegroom by sacrificing all other lovers and idols who draw us away from Him. And we have different ascetic, doxological, eucharistic, and philanthropic ways that we struggle to do this. We endeavor to keep His commands. We pray, we fast, we participate in the Divine services, we do acts of mercy, drawing near to those who are suffering and in need, and in so doing draw near to God. Here, as St. James articulates in his epistle, by drawing near to God, by sacrificing other gods, idols, and our own ego, He draws near to us.

Of course, we are wondrously reminded of the good news that God has drawn near to us first! In his kenosis and outpouring of love through creation, incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, He has drawn near to us, and in so doing sacrificed His own life to save us. And what does it look like when the God-Man, the Logos and Anointed One, the Icon of love, the Coming One, decides to draw near to us? He takes on everything that we are, not only by becoming flesh, but by taking up a cross, being cut off and cut down by his own people, getting crucified, and ultimately dying for us. This is the sacrifice of God. This is God drawing near to us, his beloved. This is, as Isaiah prophesied, “Emmanuel.” What’s furthermore so extraordinary and incredible about this is that God has not waited for us to draw near to Him! He did not wait until we were all ready, or holy, or worthy. But the God of love has arrived out of season, in the middle of history, drawing near to us and rescuing us even while we were totally unfaithful, pursuing other lovers, and still far away from Him. Motivated only by love, He has- and continually has- drawn near to us, because He is a good and loving God. St. Athanasios in his On the Incarnation, says that seeing the image of God being lost among men and seeing us dying, He did what a good and loving king would do. He drew near, sacrificed Himself, and rescued us. And this was His original plan. He knew He would have to do and be this sacrifice for us from the beginning.

Now, as we approach the coming Nativity Fast, and the beginning of the final act of this cosmic rescue mission, when the Lord is born of the Virgin in Bethlehem, we too, in anticipation of this great qurbān of God, also dare to draw near to him. We pray, and fast, and do acts of mercy. We endeavor to keep His commandments, to purify ourselves, to repent, and to worship Him. And we thus have the great joy of proclaiming along with the chorus of angels His great victory, His faithfulness, and His nearness, crying out: “Emmanuel! God is with us!”