The Sacrifice of Praise
King David first employed the expression “sacrifice of praise” at a time when the Lord God found something wanting in the animal sacrifices. Though the exterior offerings were correct and accomplished frequently, there was not understanding or true submission or love; they failed to conform interiorly in their sacrifices. God introduces the sacrifice of praise as a new kind of sacrifice that can remedy this vice, the mindless offering of a victim. The Church passes on this teaching with an intention that we also will live up to what is signified in the sacrifice of praise.
What Is Signified
According to St. Thomas, in every sacrifice there is a sign and there is something signified by the sign. Both are offered. “The visible sacrifice, which is offered to God exteriorly, is a sign of the invisible sacrifice, by which someone offers himself and the things that are his, to the service of God.” The sign (here, the audible sacrifice) and the invisible interior sacrifice are both necessary to make a sacrifice of praise.
The sacrifice of praise, therefore, is something much more than the offering of perishable words, spoken or sung. The thing signified is nothing short of the whole self and everything that one has. St. Robert Bellarmine clarifies:
“We have here to notice the difference between the praise of God, and the ‘sacrifice of praise’; we may praise God with our lips alone, but the ‘sacrifice of praise’ can only be offered by those who, on the altar of their hearts, light up the fire of charity, on which to pour the incense of praise to God; that is to say, by those who believe and understand, to a certain extent, that God is supremely good, and after knowing and believing so much of him, love him with their whole heart, admire and praise him, as being most beautiful, most perfect, and most wise.” To acknowledge God as the sovereign Good and to declare our total dependence on Him is to adore Him. What is signified is equivalent to what is expressed through the holocaust.
Anyone who offers this sacrifice, by that fact renounces whatever could spoil his offering, and adheres loyally to God. “No one offers this sacrifice, and is evil,” says St. Augustine, “for life and tongue agree.” St. Albert insists on holiness, Cassiodorus on purity and detachment: “Only he who is clean from earthly vices immolates the sacrifice of praise.” The sacrifice of praise makes such a claim upon our will and our affections. This is also what Archbishop Lefebvre preached to seminarians in Mortain:
“Is our soul totally given over to God? Do our prayers come from the heart or only from the lips? Are the psalms which we recite the daily expression of our own sentiments? Still more, do we exercise perfectly our obedience to God? That is precisely the touchstone of our piety and devotion. Those who love God obey His commandments.”
A Sign of Great Worth
One may argue that if the thing signified (the whole self and everything that one has) is dear to us at all, the visible sacrifice should also be dear to us. How can the word represent something so costly? Words are cheap.
In the sign of the sacrifice of praise is a worth that is based not on the cost involved in speaking or singing, but on clarity of expression. St. Augustine says, “No sign so expresses and signifies the intention of the heart as the word..., and devotion cannot be better revealed than through the devotion of praise.” St. Thomas follows this reasoning when he ranks the sacrifice of praise highest of all the Old Testament sacrifices: “Because every representation is made through some signs, and among signs words have primacy, the sacrifice of praise seems to have pre-eminence.”
To a man of faith, the sacred word is precious, and for this reason it is pronounced with reverence. Church legislation on sacred music requires this kind of care by insisting that a musical setting of a sacred text is church-worthy only if it communicates that sense of the sacred inherent in the text.
Though words can clearly represent our soul with its needs, its gratitude, and its sorrow, they can declare God’s excellence only imperfectly. The Book of Ecclesiasticus exhorts us to compensate for the deficiency of our words, through frequency and fervor: “We shall say much, and yet shall want words: but the sum of our words is, He is all....Glorify the Lord as much as ever you can, for he will yet far exceed.”
For the saints, the paradox that this sign of great worth doesn’t cost us is further reason to be grateful and to offer it frequently. “We do not have to go to Arabia seeking frankincense,” says St. Augustine. And St. Thomas says, “A man ought to sing frequently because of God’s greatness, because of the multitude of interior goods He gives to us, and because of the multitude of sins.”
Moreover, these words link our spiritual sacrifices to the sacrifice of the altar. An act of self-denial or a work of mercy may indeed cost us. It receives formal expression through such words as “Laudamus Te” and “Kyrie eleison.”
The Sacrifice of the Altar
That the sacrifice of praise is ordered to the sacrifice of the Mass and a good Holy Communion is clear from the text of the Holy Mass itself. Early in the Canon is a commemoration especially “of them who offer, or for whom the Mass is offered.” This “Memento of the living” makes our offering explicit by the term “sacrifice of praise.” The sacrifice of praise is a preparation and thanksgiving for Holy Mass.
On our part, the invisible interior oblation in the sacrifice of praise is not different from what we immolate when we offer ourselves in union with the Host at Holy Mass. Indeed, it is by the sacrifice of praise that we formally unite our spiritual offerings to the sacrifice of our Lord; the Holy Eucharist then enables us to give adequate thanks to God. Baptized Catholics do not offer to God a collection of isolated spiritual sacrifices that have nothing to do with the one Sacrifice of the New Law, nor should we want to. What is a Catholic, anyway? Archbishop Lefebvre said, “Essentially, a Catholic is one who offers himself as a victim on the altar with Our Lord.” We become Catholic by our Baptism, which gives us a share in the royal priesthood of Christ, a power to worship God by uniting to our Lord’s one Sacrifice.
St. Ignatius of Antioch assures the Ephesians that it is through His Son that God the Father hears them singing with one voice to Him; hence the union with Christ in His Mystical Body enables us to surrender ourselves to God and to offer ourselves with His Son through His own sacrifice of praise. Here is one conspicuous example; notice the first person singular. “Into thy hands I commend my spirit,” He prays from the cross already as Head of His Church. That union of Head and members is much closer than that which is found in any army, city, or other human society. “These words are prayed as it were by one person...for Christ and the Church are one person,” says St. Thomas. And now we surrender ourselves to God through Christ, when at Compline every night we sing with the Church in the first person singular: “Into thy hands I commend my spirit.”
By the sacrifice of praise, the Church’s sacrifice is continuous, and not only because the praise is offered continuously, though in different places. The Church’s sacrifice is continuous because our offering is sustained from one Mass to the next, in us. Though nature will require interruptions in the actual prayer, a man can be said to pray continuously by praying at fixed hours regularly, by consecrating the hours following his prayer, and by desiring to pray. Sung prayer in particular has the advantage of leaving deep impressions in the soul, so that our sacrifice is prolonged. A chant will remain in the mind for hours after the actual prayer has ceased; thus it can reinforce our consecrated times away from actual prayer and sustain us in our offering, and poetically stir the desires to pray again.
For our good, the Lord God wants not the sign only, but also what is signified: the whole self and everything that one has. God wants the one who offers himself through the sacrifice to think about what he is doing, to will the offering with all his heart, and to offer all through our Lord, Jesus Christ. “Offer to God the sacrifice of praise.” Let us vigorously shun the vice of mindlessly offering words without interior conformity of soul!