Most Episcopalians are familiar with the phrase the sacrifice of praise from our worship – it’s included as one of eight possible ‘offertory sentences’ spoken by a priest just prior to the celebration of Holy Communion: “Through Christ let us continually offer to God the sacrifice of praise, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his Name. But do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”
This invitation to communion is taken from The Letter to the Hebrews (can you think of, by the way, a better invitation to get than an invitation to communion?) and warns against neglecting service in the light of praise in the Christian life; for when praise trumps sacrifice – whether that praise is enacted in isolation or community (the church) – we can ask, with St. Basil and St. Anthony, “If we just go off alone to be holy, whose feet shall we wash?”
In the same vein, for Episcopalians The General Thanksgiving in The Book of Common Prayer commends:
And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies,
that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to your service,
and by walking before you
in holiness and righteousness all our days…
I don’t suppose that the necessity for a marriage between generosity and worship (sacrifice and praise) in the Christian life is ground-breaking news to any of us – that praise divorced from service as sacrifice leaves one essential partner wanting. We know that when either pole trumps the other both partners suffer and unity and mutuality are lost. But how do we negotiate the balance? What is our rule?
Early in my ministry, when working as a chaplain on a college campus, I met a wonderful couple. Both were academics working in different fields of study. In order to support rather than negate one another they had decided to take turns, each using five-year blocks to support the other, one concentrating on research while the other concentrated on teaching. Perhaps they were familiar with Francis of Assisi, who possessed a passion for engagement with the world and the need for contemplative solitude. When designing his ‘Rule for Hermitages’ (which were limited to three or four brothers) Francis used the story of Mary and Martha from Luke’s gospel as his template. Two brothers would serve as Mothers (following Martha) and two would serve as Sons (following Mary). The Mothers would “protect their sons from everyone, so that no one can talk with them.” Periodically, the sons “should sometimes assume the role of mothers, as from time to time it may seem good to them to exchange roles.”
The ‘but’ in the invitation to communion from the letter to the Hebrews seems to indicate that even in the early church there was a tendency to neglect sacrifice for praise. The five powerful verses that comprise the story of Mary and Martha in Luke’s gospel (10.38-42) is perhaps the quintessential text defining the debate about which ‘part’ is the better one – sacrifice or praise. On that same passage Thomas Aquinas wrote: “It is a greater thing to give light than simply to have light, and in the same way it is a greater thing to pass on to others what you have contemplated than just to contemplate.” In considering the same passage renowned Cistercian Bernard of Clairvaux viewed Mary’s choice to sit at Jesus’ feet (while Martha toiled) as the ‘better’ part, but contended there was yet one more option: the best part.
For Clairvaux, as for the church, ‘the best part’ is the fusion of Martha and Mary’s portions – the marriage of sacrifice and praise in our lives. As we move toward the season of Advent and await Christ coming into the world anew may we find new ways to have and to share the light of the world.