As Lent approaches (next week!), lifelong Catholics of a certain age might remember the typically Catholic refrain "Offer it up!" Facing a let-down? Offer it up! Closed the car door on your hand? Offer it up! Don't like green peas? Offer it up! In other words (as we also heard), "make a little sacrifice." We got used to a kind of metaphorical or spiritualized use of the concept of sacrifice.
Not so for Sirach and the people he was writing for. The sage was living in Egypt, in a large Jewish community. Perhaps he saw many of his fellow Jews falling away from Torah observance in that land of exile. It wouldn't be surprising: when your spiritual life is limited to liturgy, it can fade pretty fast. And for the Jews, to be away from Jerusalem meant being far from the Temple, the only place where sacrifice could be offered. Since they couldn't offer the sacrifices, that most visible and striking expression of faith and praise, it could be that other expressions of faith were all the more easy to shrug off. So the old Jesus ben Sirach offers a new spin on sacrifice. He shows his fellow exiles how they can offer acceptable sacrifices even when the Temple was inaccessible, suggesting six different forms of "spiritual sacrifice" that we Catholics readily recognize as part of our own tradition--and that we are encouraged and expected to practice in a special way during Lent.
Look at Sirach's line-up:
Keeping the Law (Torah) = a great oblation
Observing the commandments = a peace offering (this is a specific kind of sacrifice)
Works of charity = an offering of fine flour
Giving alms = the sacrifice of praise
Refraining from evil = pleasing the Lord
Avoiding injustice = atonement
So, Sirach says, no one has an excuse for coming into the Lord's presence "empty-handed": "all that you offer is in fulfillment of the precepts." Plus, God will repay "sevenfold"! (And the Gospel tells us that this is now "a hundredfold"!)
Have you started planning for Lent? What forms will your sacrifice take?