Lamb of God

File:Francisco de Zurbarán - Agnus Dei - Google Art Project.jpg

A reflection on the death of Jesus, Good Friday, 2017

A liturgical chant from my childhood has been rattling through my mind the last few days: “O Christ, thou lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.” The words of this piece, known as the Agnus Dei from its days as a Latin hymn, remain part of the liturgy, of course, adapted or occasionally replaced by a contemporary hymn. It is sung after the prayers have been said over the bread and wine and the community prepares to come to the table.

The melody in my head is haunting. It conveys yearning and hope and the mystery contained in the image of Christ as the sacrificial lamb.

We don’t witness the killing of animals for food, anymore. It shows up in the market wrapped in plastic or pre-cooked and frozen. We don’t see the knife. We don’t see the blood. We don’t see the life that has been sacrificed. We are exempt from the knowledge that this is a matter of life and death.

One year I bought lamb for Easter dinner. I was trying to form a tradition for that holy day like the traditions for Christmas and Thanksgiving. But the next year, my daughter, Anna, and I were down at the big public market in Detroit just before Easter, and she saw a cattle truck full of cute little lambs and said “Oh, Daddy, I want one.” I couldn’t bring myself to tell her what those lambs were doing there. And I didn’t want to tell her on Sunday evening that the meat on her plate was lamb.

A sacrifice happens when an animal is killed that we may eat and live. When God gave humans permission to kill and eat at the time of Noah, God didn’t want us to forget that we were taking a life, that we were trespassing on the realm of the sacred. God is the author of life. It is God’s to give and take. So when Noah was given permission, he was commanded not to eat the blood. It was to be poured out at the base of an altar, as if to say, “All life belongs to you, O God, and we take this life only by your permission.”

Animals were not a regular part of the ancient diet. And when their lives were taken, the feast was shared. Not only was a portion given to the priest, but the feast was shared with the poor. So the death of an animal meant life for the community.

“O Christ, thou lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, grant us thy peace. Amen.”

There is a transaction implied in the sacrifice: a life is given that we may live – and so we share that life with others.

It was not difficult for the ancients to look upon the sacrifice of Jesus and see something of this same transaction: a life is given that we may live – and we, in turn, share that life with others. It is why we are here today to pray that the life that was given may bring life to the world.

The image, of course, is bigger than just the sacrifice of animals for food. Israel saw something redemptive in the sacrifice of an animal, something that reset the relationship between God and ourselves.

The ancient world didn’t have vast feedlots with thousands upon thousands of animals. A family may have had a cow and from the cow a calf. The sacrifice of the fatted calf was no small thing; it was a costly sacrifice.

It was something that would only happen on a very special occasion – like a wedding or the return of the prodigal son – and it would be shared with the whole village. There was certainly too much meat there for a single family – and no freezers to store it for later.

And the thing about such communal feasts is that have an important role in restoring the fabric of the community. Old irritations are forgotten around a laden table. The shared feast overcomes the inevitable conflicts and grievances of life together. A full belly brings its own kind of peace. So it is not hard to see why the death of the animal became associated with the forgiveness of sins, the redemption of the community.

“O Christ, thou lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, grant us thy peace. Amen.”

And then there is Israel’s story of that final plague in Egypt, when death struck every household of the Egyptians and finally broke the grip of Israel’s bondage. The blood of the lamb marked their doorposts. The blood of the lamb was a sign of their trust in God. The blood of the lamb saved them from death and brought them to freedom.

So the sacrifice of a lamb is about life. And it is about redemption And it is about freedom, deliverance, salvation.

“O Christ, thou lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, grant us thy peace. Amen.”

All of these images and ideas cluster around the death of Jesus:

  • A life is given that we may live.
  • A life is given that sins may be lifted away.
  • A life is given that the human community may be restored.
  • A life is given that we may be set free
  • A life is given that death may pass us by.

And this brings us back to our very first notion: A life is given that we may live. Only now it is much more than daily life. Now it is the life of the world freed from the shadow of death. Now it is a life that is imperishable.

What happens on this day through the death of Christ is a great mystery. But something profound has happened, something that changed the course of human history. Something that changed our relationship with the divine. Something that changed our relationships with one another. Something that changed our understanding of life’s essential truths. Something that changed our sense of what it means to be human.

“O Christ, thou lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, grant us thy peace. Amen.”

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Francisco_de_Zurbar%C3%A1n_-_Agnus_Dei_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg Francisco de Zurbarán [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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About dkbonde

Pastor, Los Altos Lutheran Church
This entry was posted in Christianity, Good Friday, The Cross of Christ and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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