Temple I on the Great Plaza and North Acropolis seen from Temple II in Tikal, Guatemala (Image Credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Belize is one of my favorite vacation locations. I like the snorkeling and snoozing, but I also like the ancient religious ruins. (My kids like to joke that I’m getting to be an ancient religious ruin.)
On the last trip to Belize we went across the border into Guatemala and visited the Mayan ruins at Tikal. We climbed to the top of the main pyramid, and sitting up there on a beautiful morning, the jungle birds crying and the jungle trees and neatly trimmed lawned—I imagined the priests offering their sacrifices of grain and human lives to their sky gods. It was a different scene then. The forests all cut down, the barbaric rites continued in fear and desperation as famine and starvation loomed.
The critics of Catholicism—both Protestant and atheist—might say, “Geesh, it’s not really any different than what you do is it Father?”
They’d argue, “Don’t you also get dressed up and ascend to the heights of the holy place where you offer a sacrifice of bread and blood? Don’t you say this is the Body of Christ? Aren’t you making the same pagan sacrifices of body and blood and grain to the sky god hoping that he will bring you prosperity and peace?”
The Protestant will turn away in horror at the idea that Catholicism is simply brutal paganism warmed up and the atheistic materialist will turn away in ridicule and disgust that we still believe such superstitious ideas and practice such crude religious magic.
Is it so? What is the right attitude towards primitive and pagan religions? We must think of the Mayans and the other pagan civilizations in a similar way as we do the Hebrews. In their own way in their own place they are all precursors and figures of that which was to come. Among the Hebrews the hints and prophecies were most specific. Among the Hebrews the hints and prophecies were inspired by God himself and he walked with his pilgrim people in a unique way. Still the echoes, the hints and the guesses which pointed to the coming Christ were there in each of the pagan and primitive religions in their own way.
In the jungles of Central America the Mayans too looked to the heavens and knew their creator was there. They knew in some deep magic from before the dawn of time that a sacrifice of grain and blood was required, and they made that sacrifice—one which had already been fulfilled in the one, full final sacrifice of Christ the King on the cross. There the grain was offered for the bread of life was offered. There the blood was offered—the blood of the one son. There the human sacrifice to which all human sacrifices looked was offered once for all.
What does the Catholic priest do at Mass? We re-present that one, full, final sacrifice of Christ. We bring into the present moment its mysterious benefits and the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. We apply the benefits of that one bloody sacrifice in an unbloody way.
What went before in all the pagan myths, the pagan rites and the pagan sacrifices was simply a foreshadowing of what was to come. The Mass is only related to the Mayans as an oak tree is related to an acorn. The acorn holds within itself the oak tree, but the oak tree is the living fulfillment of the acorn. So the Mayan sacrifices, and all the pagan religions were seeds of what was to come.
When Christ the King came and the final sacrifice was made all the other sacrifices died a death and were no longer necessary. They had played their part. They had looked forward—even in horror and despair to what was to come. This is why when the Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries arrived with the full, final sacrifice the primitive religions which pointed to that sacrifice withered and died. They died as the darkness dies at the dawn of day.