At the very heart of the Catholic Mass, the priest turns to the people and lifts up the chalice and consecrated bread that has become the body and blood of Christ. He repeats the words of St. John the Baptist when he saw Jesus coming to him at the Jordan River: “Behold, the Lamb of God” (John 1:29). These few words contain within them a vast and fascinating history that looks both back with thanks and forward with hope.
The image of the Lamb of God is at the heart of what the Church calls “the paschal mystery.” This is the mystery that comprises the events of Holy Week and Easter. There, in the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, the whole of God’s plan for humanity is completed and fulfilled, and the image of the Lamb of God is there at the very heart of it all.
From the beginning of the Old Testament, God expected the sacrifice of a young animal. In the Mass we mention “the sacrifice of Abel.” This was the lamb that was offered by Adam and Eve’s son, who then became the first murder victim when he was killed by his brother, Cain.
While animal sacrifices might seem barbaric to us, we should remember that these stories are very ancient and come to us from a time when people in primitive societies offered human sacrifices as an attempt to appease their demonic gods. Instead of offering their sons and daughters, God expected the Jews to substitute with animals.
However, the story in Genesis continues with God asking Father Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. What was going on in that strange story? Did God really expect his servant Abraham to kill his own son? No. At the last moment the angel of God pointed out a ram caught in a thicket. Abraham was to sacrifice the ram instead. In this way God was teaching three different lessons.
The first lesson was that, despite the prevailing culture, he did not demand a human sacrifice. He would allow an animal to be substituted. Secondly, if an animal could be substituted, then a substitution for one’s punishment was possible. Finally, he was teaching Abraham that within the barbaric sacrificial system, a greater and more wonderful truth was hidden. The secret is contained in a little phrase in the story itself. The boy Isaac asks his father where the sacrificial animal is. Abraham replies, “God himself will provide the sacrifice” (see Genesis 22:8).
The scapegoat and the Lamb
To understand the full significance of the Lamb of God, we have to delve into the depths of human psychology and sin. One of the fundamental symptoms of sin is the inclination to blame someone else for our unhappiness and wrongdoing. This is obvious everywhere, from the school playground to the interactions of international diplomacy. There is a fight on the playground and little Jimmy blurts out, “But Joey hit me first!” or “Joey made me mad!” Likewise, when there is a skirmish between nations, the diplomats rush to blame the other side.
This tendency to blame others is there right at the beginning in the story of the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve sinned. God asked them about it, and immediately Adam said, “Eve made me do it!” and Eve retorts, “Satan tempted me!” This inclination to blame others lies at the poisonous heart of all sin — which is pride. Pride makes us blame others for what is wrong.
In the Old Testament God took this tendency and reversed it. In the story of Abraham and Isaac, he established the principle of substitution, and in the time of Moses, he allowed the Jews to ceremonially put their sins on an animal and cast it out into the desert.
This animal was called the “scapegoat.” The scapegoat not only symbolically took the sins of the person; it was cast out of the community, and in the wilderness it would most certainly have died or been devoured by wild beasts. In this way God allowed the Jews to shift the blame, but by involving them in the ritual, he also enabled them to take responsibility for their crimes.
The Passover Lamb
The word pascha from which we get “paschal mysteries” is actually linked back to the words for Passover. Passover is the annual celebration of the Jews’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt.
Those who remember their Bible stories will recall that Moses was called by God to lead the Jews out of slavery. After nine terrible plagues, God said that an angel of death would sweep through the land. So they would be protected, the Jews were to take an innocent, pure lamb, sacrifice it, and splash the blood on the doorposts and lintels of their homes. When the angel of death swept through the land, he would pass over their homes and not visit the eldest sons with death.
Every year after that God commanded that they solemnly remember the Passover with a similar sacrifice. The lamb they killed was called “the Lamb of God.” The Gospels make it clear that it was during Passover week that Jesus went to his own death on the cross. In doing so he fulfilled the ancient symbolism of the Lamb of God — the Passover Lamb. Coincidentally, some historians believe that after the Passover Lamb was killed, it would be nailed to a cross-like structure so it could be skinned and butchered. The horrifying sight of him hanging naked on a cross must have hammered home to Jesus’ friends the memory of John the Baptist calling him the Lamb of God.
Coming to realize who Jesus really was, they must also have remembered the poignant words of Father Abraham to his son Isaac: “God himself will provide the sacrifice.” As Isaac carried the wood for the sacrifice up the mountain, so Jesus carried the wood up Mount Calvary. As the ram had his head caught in a thicket of briars, so Jesus’ disciples must have seen their friend as the Lamb of God with his head crowned with thorns.
The Lamb in the Liturgy
The sacrifice of Christ on the cross is central to Catholic worship. That is why the altar is central in Catholic churches, and it is mandatory that an image of the crucified Lord is prominently displayed. However, what do Catholics believe about the sacrifice of the Lamb of God? Do Catholic priests sacrifice Christ over and over again every time they say Mass?
Some non-Catholic Christians believe so. However, that is not part of Catholic belief. Instead we acknowledge that the sacrifice of the Lamb of God on the cross was a once-for-all offering to God. The death of Jesus Christ fulfilled and completed all the offerings ever made to God. In his once-and-for-all offering, all satisfaction for sin was made and humanity could forever have access to God’s eternal forgiveness.
Catholics believe that Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice on the cross is “re-presented” at Mass. The sacrifice of the Mass brings Christ’s once-for-all-sacrifice into the present moment and applies it to the needs of the people. The bread and wine become the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ the Lord so that we may participate in the once-for-all sacrifice.
The Jews teach that at the annual Passover celebration, they participate in the original Passover so long ago through something called anamnesis. This is the idea that an event in the past is brought forward as a kind of “timeless moment” and that through the ritual, the participants also participate in that event.
Someone has described this as being in the audience for a performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. You don’t merely watch the play; you also participate in the emotions and transactions you see on stage. Hamlet’s trials and troubles come alive again as the play is performed. Of course, the Mass is more than a stage play, but this explanation helps us understand how the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is alive and real every time we celebrate Mass.
The Lamb enthroned
The story of the Lamb of God began in the Book of Genesis with the sacrifice of Abel and Abraham. It ends in the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible. There St. John has a vision of heaven, and it is revealed to him that at the heart of heaven on the throne is the Lamb who has been slain.
The Lamb is on the throne and is worshiped by all the hosts of heaven who cry out, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing” (Revelation 5:12). This Lamb of God exists in the “timeless moment” at the heart of heaven.
It is the Lamb who opens the judgment of God on earth, but it is also the Lamb who is the fount and source of God’s forgiveness and mercy.
The Lamb is Jesus Christ, who is also the Good Shepherd. In a final, beautiful vision, St. John imparts eternal hope to all who trust in Christ when he writes:
For this reason they stand before God’s throne and worship him day and night in his temple. The one who sits on the throne will shelter them. They will not hunger or thirst anymore, nor will the sun or any heat strike them. For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Revelation 7:15-17).