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Home / Articles / Columnists / From The Heart /  The End of Sacrifice
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Monday, March 7,2011

The End of Sacrifice

By Alan Cohen  

 recently made a pilgrimage to the ancient Mayan temples at Chichen Itza and Tulum in Mexico. I was impressed by the staggering structures the Mayans created, demonstrating their sophisticated understanding of mathematics and astronomy, and a deep inherent spirituality.

At one pyramid our tour guide informed us that the Mayans regularly offered human sacrifices to appease their gods. “The Mayans feared that if they did not make sacrifices to the sun god, the sun would not rise the next morning,” the guide explained. “In times of drought, they sought to appease the rain god with multiple sacrifices.”

While we would regard such offerings as primitive and even abhorrent, the mindset of sacrifice is still very much alive in the modern world. Many of us believe that we must sacrifice something we value to gain something else we want. We believe that struggle, strife, sweat, and sorrow are required to get anywhere in our career; that we must deny our joy so others can have theirs; and, under a “no pain, no gain,” mentality, we believe that if we are not suffering we have it too easy. While we are not sacrificing whole bodies as the Mayans did, we do sacrifice our emotions, our happiness, and often our health. Our sacrifices do not rob us of life in one dramatic moment, as the Mayans experienced, but they rob us of life a little bit more each day. We die not under the knife of the shaman, but under the whip of ongoing self-recrimination.

Many religions thrive on the tenet of sacrifice and even glorify it. (It is said, “the Jews invented guilt and the Catholics perfected it.”) Many sects of Christianity extol “the blood of the lamb” and seek to emulate the crucifixion of Christ. Yet many of them never arrive at the resurrection. They emulate the sorrow of Jesus but not his joy. I wonder if Jesus would be pleased to see people suffering in his name, or if he would find deeper reward to see them happy.

When the Mayans believed the sun would fail to rise if they did not offer it blood, they labored under the illusion that sacrifices were causing the sun to rise. Thus superstition reigned over science. If the culture suspended sacrifices for any length of time they would have discovered that there was no relationship between the loss of life and the gain of sunlight. They would have found that the sun is happy to shine on all things unconditionally, delivering its blessing because that is its nature and what it loves to do. No payment required.

If we suspended our belief in personal sacrifice, we too might discover that, metaphorically speaking, the sun is happy to shine on us without exacting a fee. In classic anthropomorphic fashion, the Mayans projected human emotions and ego onto the sun. People in fear and pain may demand sacrifices, but the sun does not, and neither does anything in nature. If we questioned fear, we would realize it is void of substance. In its stead we would find well-being sufficient for all to bask in.

The assertion that you do not owe is a radical one in a society where debt is one of our most predominant and pressing themes. The jaw-dropping volume of personal and national debt reflects an underlying belief that we must lose in order to get. Rather than working harder to pay off our debts (meanwhile accumulating more), we might do well to instead look within to examine our core belief of indebtedness. We would thus address the source of the debt rampage and begin to heal our belief in paying blood for what would otherwise come to us by grace.

The Mayans have been in the headlines for the past few years, and will be increasingly spotlighted because their calendar ends in 2012, which has created a lot of hoo-ha as the supposed end of the world. Not exactly. It’s not the world that will end, but the old world, which, as far as I can see, wasn’t working so well anyway. Even unto the 21st century the belief in psychic self-mutilation still rules the masses. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if 2012 marked the end of the world of sacrifice? If so, bring it on!

Life takes no joy at your loss; to the contrary, a part of the heart of God cries when you do. If you and I could suspend our belief that death keeps the sun rising, we might find that our blood serves far better in our veins than spilled. Then we shall erect new temples where we deliver to its altars the fruits of our joy, not our tears.


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