The other day I was in that odd space of discontent where everything around me took on a certain emptiness, a certain poverty of meaning. I was making dinner and grabbed an onion from the pantry to begin chopping. And when I looked down at that onion, that innocent, meek little vegetable, it began sneering back. Suddenly, it was taking on a ridiculously overblown amount of symbolism for all the things I wanted that I couldn’t have. Here it was, so casually occupying space in a world that had let me down. Why should it get to be an ONION? It wanted to be an onion, it was designed to be an onion, and that’s exactly what it got to BE, gosh-durn-it, fulfilling its purpose at the bottom of my skillet. But where did that leave ME?
Back in the early 90s, when bangs overpowered every female forehead and people knew how to spell “Jordache,” there was a contemporary Christian song that all the evangelical churches were singing: “We Bring The Sacrifice of Praise.” As a cerebral, mouth-breathing tween, I wondered at the apparent incongruity of the title. Praise meant joy, celebration, a positive outflow of the heart’s delight. But sacrifice? That meant struggle — foregoing pleasure, being content with less. If you’re bringing a sacrifice to God, wouldn’t it be difficult, a little somber? Certainly it wouldn’t result in the feel-good stanzas I always associated with “praise music.”
The song derives, of course, from the Bible, the book of Hebrews, where the apostle Paul is encouraging his readers to press on in the faith. He reminds them of Jesus’ very great sacrifice for all people — how he was forced outside the city gate, disgraced, killed for everyone’s holiness. And so we join Jesus outside the city gate with our “sacrifices of praise,” says Paul, unafraid to associate and align our identities and reputations with him, our suffering savior.
And yet, there’s still that pesky word: Praise. We are happy about this? Our hearts revel in the sufferings of Christ?
“For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come,” continues Paul. It turns out that this special brand of praise — sacrificial, outside the city gate —is the most brazen, ardent expression of hope imaginable, a down-payment of joy on the unspeakable wholeness we believe will be ours someday finally and fully. It looks ahead to a better city, one we don’t see now from the walled-off outskirts but one we will experience soon as restored citizens. It’s joy that is preemptive, anticipating and dwelling within an idea so believed in, so bought in-to, that the result in the present poverty is joy. And this miraculous heart-and-mind posture isn’t accidental: Paul reminds us that this sacrifice of praise, this surrender to hope, can only happen “through Jesus.”
So back to the onion. I can just let it be, can’t I? If I’m with Jesus, inside of Jesus, and he is with and within me, then everything in my kitchen suddenly loses all power to taunt. No longer is the world a reminder of my poverty, but a place where I can dwell with Jesus Here and Now, and look ahead to better things. An onion becomes a sweet little vegetable again, melting into a creamy stroganoff sauce, and I am dirty and smelly and tired and wishing I didn’t have to cook tonight — but there’s still a little spark, a part of me that jumps up a little bit and taps my fingers against the counter to a silent rhythm. And maybe this little bit is enough to count as Praise, even to count as Sacrifice — just a pauper mom’s iteration of the great apostle’s charge.
(I’d like to think so, anyway. Sometimes, it’s the best I can do on a Monday.)
The season of Lent is one of drawing closer to God through the discipline of self-examination and repentance.