Jesus is the eternal ‘Lamb of God’ who gave his life for mankind

Father John A. Kiley

One portion of the Mass that Catholics will not have to thumb through their missalettes to follow this Advent is the Lamb of God.

The triple acclamations acknowledging Christ as the new paschal lamb remain unchanged: “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.” However just before the distribution of holy Communion, worshippers will notice a slight change of terms. Holding up the precious body and blood, the priest will announce, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.” Believers have long associated the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ with the sacrifice of the lambs in preparation for the Jewish Passover feast. The blood of the original paschal lambs in Egypt were smeared on the door posts of the Jews to convince the angel of death that a household had suffered enough and should be spared any further calamity. The Jews, of course, still celebrate this deliverance with the annual Passover meal each spring.

St. John the Baptist understood this connection between the rescue from death afforded by the ancient Lamb of God and the liberation from sin won by Jesus Christ, the new Lamb of God. He was quick to announce his cousin as "the Lamb of God" to his disciples along the riverbank. St. John's Gospel also sees a link with the old Lamb of God when the writer applies this ancient text to Christ: "None of his bones shall be broken." And in the Book of Revelation, when a vision of heaven is granted, Jesus is pictured as a lamb, wounded but standing, symbolizing his death and resurrection. And now the English-speaking church affirms this imagery as it invites the assembly of believers to approach and enjoy “the supper of the Lamb.”

Depicting Jesus as the new and eternal Lamb of God certainly has adequate scriptural foundation as well as a long-standing history in church prayer and art. It is all the more curious then that in the scriptural accounts of the Last Supper, admittedly a Passover meal, Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul never mention the paschal lamb. Rather it is the unleavened bread and cups of wine that explicitly and vividly dominate the episode. For the traditional Jew of the time the lamb obtained from the temple would have been the paramount concern at this family meal. Yet Jesus and his narrators ignore the lamb completely. Authors like Brant Pitre, a professor at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, have pondered why Jesus personally preferred to go down in history as the “Bread of Angels” rather than the “Lamb of God.”

In Jewish tradition the paschal meal was an annual event, celebrated only in the springtime. Conversely, the Jews would remember that the manna in the desert, the “bread from heaven,” was a daily event that nourished the Jews regularly for 40 years as they made their way to the promised land. Recall that Jesus had taught his disciples to pray expressly for “daily bread,” as they journeyed toward eternity. And remember that Jesus himself impressively multiplied loaves in the wilderness, the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels. Also, the paschal lambs were gathered from the pastures around Jerusalem raised by local shepherds. In contrast, the manna came down directly from heaven. It was the “bread of angels,” produced by celestial beings. It was considered supernatural. Again, the paschal lamb had to be eaten in one sitting. There were to be no leftovers. On the other hand, some of the manna from the desert and especially the priestly loaves of proposition were reserved perpetually in the Holy of Holies in the temple to be accorded the greatest honor and respect by the Jews who understood them to be enduring signs of God's continued favor. Some even thought that the priestly loaves of proposition genuinely signified God's continued divine presence in the temple.

The paschal lamb and the bread in the wilderness are both rich, scriptural figures which the church respectfully employs in her liturgy as well as in her artistry. Yet the ascendancy of Christ's sacred body and precious blood under the appearance of bread and wine in Christian tradition cannot be denied. Their meaning and message are well worth a second thought.