What does sacrifice have to do with prayer?
If the soul uses the body as an instrument or servant, thus becoming a sacrifice when used correctly and in reference to God, how much more must the soul, in turn, become a sacrifice when it offers itself to God, so that, aflame with the fire of God’s love, it might participate in his beauty and become pleasing to him?
from St. Augustine Answers 101 Questions on Prayer by Fr. Ermatinger.
At the lowest understanding of the term, sacrifice is about setting aside a good in order to procure another good. A father might give up one of his vacation days to attend the recital of his daughter. Sacrifice in prayer is not used so lightly. Sacrifice in prayer, as prayer is something both owed in justice to God and commanded by Him, is cultic in action and is prompted by the virtue of religion. The good is offered to God in reverence and adoration, and, in some fashion, rent. The act of sacrifice expresses and/or facilitates communion between man and God.
For Christians, there is only one true sacrifice; that of Christ’s sacrifice upon the Cross. All other sacrifices are but the merging of an individual’s particulars with that sacrifice so that those particulars are caught up into the One True Sacrifice, take up its characteristics, and bring forth its merits.
In prayer, what is the sacrifice? It is the individual’s own self. More specifically, the “Old Man”, that is the individual in so far as he is estranged from God and lacks perfect union with Him, whose heart is rent and torn so that the Holy Spirit might dwell more perfectly within, is this sacrifice. It is also the “New Man”, in so far as the individual has put on Christ, who is sacrificed so that, in receiving everything as grace from the Father, the individual returns all to the Father holding nothing back according to the individual’s own will. What has been received, is returned with the ‘interest’ of praise – which is itself a grace originating from the Father.
Prayer is asking for the good things of God that He wishes to give. Firstly, these things are freedom from doing evil, the ending of the “Old Man”, secondly the ability to receive and do God’s will, which is both the putting on of Christ and the utter submission of that in the Father in praise and glory of Him. These are accomplished in and through the Holy Spirit, the gratuitous gift of the Father so that the individual might receive those good things of prayer that the Father provisioned and has commanded to be prayed for so that He might bestow them as the answer to prayer.
Now the soul sacrifices the body in prayer, and this is not hyperbole. The body is the form of the soul, not its prison. The body is to be sacrificed in prayer, rent, and used up, not because it is evil but because the fallen inclination is towards the goods of the body dominating the goods of the soul. So the body is spent in prayer to render it and conform it to spiritual goods. As wax is rent in the burning of a candle, so too the body in prayer.
In prayer, the soul too is a sacrifice, but as the soul is immortal, it cannot be rent. Rather, in sacrifice, it undergoes burnishing – its imperfections are burned away and it begins to glow with and by the spiritual fire of the Holy Spirit. The more the soul is sacrificed, the more it glows. The soul gives itself up – gives up its own life (which it never had of its own in the first place) so that it might receive the Father’s own life, and in doing so be more itself by praising the Father through an ever-increasing self-emptying and sacrifice. This is a mystery.