“Just as Paul speaks of ‘the oblation of the pagans,’ Peter mentions the ‘spiritual sacrifices’ which the new converts are called to offer to God through Jesus Christ. It is this new kind of offering which characterizes the priesthood of the community of believers. Is it possible to determine what Peter means by ‘spiritual sacrifices’? Since the immediate context does not offer any clarification, the undertaking is difficult. One point at least is clear: the word ‘spiritual’ contrasts the sacrifices of Christians with the ‘carnal rites’ spoken of in the Epistle to the Hebrews (9:10), that is to say, with the animal sacrifices common to the Old Testament and the pagan cults. We must again emphasize that Peter does not take ‘spiritual’ in the philosophical sense of a mental offering, but in the Christian sense of an offering made under the action of the Holy Spirit. From the beginning of his Epistle he has situated Christian existence ‘in the sanctifying action of the Spirit.’ In speaking of ‘spiritual sacrifices,’ he is at one with the perspective of the Epistle to the Hebrews on the sacrifice of Christ, which has been realized ‘thanks to the Eternal Spirit’ (Heb 9:14), and with that of Paul, for whom an oblation can only be ‘pleasing’ to God if it has been ‘sanctified in the Holy Spirit.’
But where, concretely, are we to situate the offering of spiritual sacrifices? Must we see an allusion to the Eucharist here? The exegetes are greatly divided on this point. Windisch, for example, completely excludes this possibility, while Lohmeyer supports it. Cerfaux argues against a Eucharistic interpretation and sees here only ‘thesacrifices of interior worship…good works and sufferings in imitation of Christ.’ In his opinion, the word ‘sacrifice’ and also the word ‘priesthood’ are to be taken in a metaphorical sense. It is clear that this author is concerned to reserve the term ‘sacrifice’ in its proper sense to the Eucharistic celebration, and likewise, the term ‘priest’ to ordained priests. More recently another Catholic exegete, Dacquino, starting with the same presupposition, has come to the opposite conclusion. The common assumption is that good deeds, patience under trial, the fulfillment of the will of God in day-to-day existence cannot constitute a sacrifice in the true sense, but only a ‘priestly activity in the metaphorical and improper sense.’ Examining Peter’s text, Dacquino arrives at the conviction that the apostle intends to speak of a ‘sacrificial worship in the true and proper sense,’ of a ‘true community liturgy,’ and he then concludes that he is indeed speaking of the Eucharist.
In this discussion the most questionable element is the common presupposition, that is to say the idea of sacrifice, which creates a problem in choosing between the existential and the Eucharistic interpretations, obliging one to choose one or the other. To reason in this way is to fail to take into account the Christian reworking of the idea of sacrifice, as it appears in many texts of the New Testament and as it is systematically set forth in the Epistle to the Hebrews. If it were true that the fulfillment of the will of God in day-to-day existence cannot constitute a sacrifice in the proper sense of the word, then one would also have to say that the death of Christ was not a sacrifice. In reality, from the Christian point of view, true sacrifices are existential sacrifices: they consist in the transformation of existence by the action of the Holy Spirit, in union with the sacrifice of Christ. These sacrifices have a very close connection with the Eucharist, the sacrament of Christ’s sacrifice, because the condition for their possibility is union with the sacrifice of Christ. The driving force which moves the Christian to existential sacrifices comes from the sacrifice of Christ, made present in the Eucharist, and the fulfillment of existential sacrifices—their reaching God—is only possible through the mediation of the sacrifice of Christ, itself also made present in the Eucharist. The latter then is clearly indispensible for existential sacrifice.
Consequently, we must refuse to accept the dilemma. Peter’s text in no way obliges us to choose between an existential and a Eucharistic interpretation. On the contrary, it permits the combination of the two aspects. We have already noted that the expressions used can well apply to a Eucharistic liturgy (what better way have Christians for ‘approaching’ Christ in the mystery of his humiliation and glorification in order to be established as a priestly community and carried along in a movement of offering to God?), but no one is compelled to adopt this meaning exclusively. The most direct references are not to the sacrament of the Eucharist but to the reality of the Passion and Glorification of Christ, ‘rejected by men, but chosen in honor by God.’ This suggests that the ‘spiritual sacrifices’ of Christians are themselves to be situated in the day-to-day life, to be modeled on the glorifying Passion of Christ. And in fact, as Feuillet has rightly emphasized, the general context of the Epistle suggests the establishment of a close connection between the ‘spiritual sacrifices’ of Christians and the imitation of the suffering Christ, the favorite theme of the apostle. In this connection, we should especially note the verbal contact that exists between the expression ‘spiritual sacrifices’ and the insistent assertion of 4:14: ‘Happy are you if you are reproached for the name of Christ, for the Spirit of glory, the Spirit of God rests upon you!’ The times when the Spirit of God rests upon the believers are certainly those which put them in the best position to offer spiritual sacrifices. The perspective, however, need not be restricted to these moments. The whole Christian existence is to be transformed into a spiritual sacrifice; Peter invites the believers to ‘no longer conform to their former covetous desires’ but ‘to become holy in all their conduct,’ by means obviously, of the ‘sanctifying action of the Spirit.’…Union with the sacrifice of Christ—which is of course actualized in the Eucharistic celebration—enables the members of the Christian community to live their priesthood in the whole of their lives.”
- Albert Vanhoye, Old Testament Priests and the New Priest: According to the New Testament