By: Fr. James Gross
“This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” I make that declaration just before receiving Holy Communion at every single Mass. And because we hear these words so often, they can become commonplace to us. But we know this act is anything but common. That moment during Mass is far too important to ever be routine.
While I was praying about today’s readings, immediately my mind went to this part of the Mass when all of us acclaim Jesus as the Lamb of God. I keep thinking about what I’m doing at that precise time—how dramatic and powerful that reality is. The Church entrusts me, as a priest, with the honor of holding the Precious Body of Jesus Christ in my hands! How is it that I can do such a thing? How could I ever allow myself to appear complacent at that moment, as if to suggest, “Ho-hum, I’ve done this thousands of times before?” What an injustice that would be!
Let’s dive deeper into that title “Lamb of God.” With this phrase John the Baptist both links Jesus to the ancestry of Israel and at the same time sets him apart. John didn’t say, “Behold, the newest prophet” or “Behold, a great teacher.” First of all, the Messiah has many different characteristics, and secondly, he doesn’t blend into the background, soon to be forgotten. Instead, John calls him Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God.
A lamb would have signified the image of sacrifice to that Jewish audience. Lambs were sacrificed in the temple in Jerusalem as expiation for sins. The reference here is most directly to the time of Moses and that special lamb of the Passover.
When Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites go, but kept them bound in slavery, the Lord sent a series of plagues upon the Egyptians: frogs, boils, locusts, darkness, etc. Pharaoh was stubborn; he told Moses and Aaron, “I don’t know this ‘God’ of whom you speak, and even if I did, I still wouldn’t let them go.” So God sent the worst plague of them all: the death of every first-born among humans and beasts in Egypt. Only the Jewish children were spared, because God had forewarned them to apply the blood of a sacrificial lamb to their door frames. That night of the Passover, according to the Book of Exodus, the contrast was so great that while in the Egyptians’ homes there was much wailing and commotion, among the Jewish neighborhoods not even as much as a dog growled.
The Passover lamb was to be one year old, male, and without blemish. Jesus was sinless and a man in the prime of his life. This was far more than a coincidence to Jesus’ earliest followers. Also, lambs portray gentleness. They don’t run wild through the wilderness and howl in the night. They are domesticated and protected. With that same docility and silence Jesus was led to slaughter.
But Jesus ushered in a new and eternal covenant, as we pray in the Eucharistic Prayer, and he served as both priest and victim of the sacrifice. So here we have both the meekness of a lamb and the firmness of a king whose kingdom was not of this world, receiving scourges and embracing a cross. In the Lamb of God we see purity and innocence, and we see a supreme sacrifice unlimited by time or population; Christ’s death will never have been too long ago, and there will never be too many of us to save.
John’s declaration paved the way for his countrymen to say: “As far back as I can remember, our family has made pilgrimages to Jerusalem to offer animal sacrifices in the Temple. But in his one sacrifice Christ has brought all of that to completion. Now, when we gather on the Lord’s Day to offer our gifts of bread and wine, they become an acceptable sacrifice to the Father.”
Every Catholic Church is, one might say, a fulfillment of what the Temple in Jerusalem prefigured, because an altar by definition is a place upon which sacrifice is offered. We have no use now for the slaughter of sheep or other animals as an act of worship. The unbloody sacrifice of Jesus Christ is presented upon this very altar at every Mass. Simply put, the altar is the cross. To make such a claim, we’d have to be honest or crazy—there’s no in between.
During the Ordination of a Catholic priest, there’s a special ritual that takes place after the gifts are brought forward. The Bishop is seated, holding a chalice and a paten with a host on it. Each newly ordained priest, one at a time, kneels before the Bishop and grabs an edge of the chalice and paten. The Bishop sends him forth to be a minister of Christ’s Body and Blood, and he recites the following prayer: “Accept from the holy people of God the gifts to be offered to Him. Know what you are doing, and imitate the mystery you celebrate; model your life on the mystery of the Lord’s cross.” Not only is the priest expected to celebrate the Liturgy reverently, but he is also to consecrate the whole of his life to Christ the High Priest, to be at all times a living icon of the Good Shepherd. Heaven knows we’re not perfect. We have our faults. But a meaningful way that priests imitate the mysteries they celebrate is how they acknowledge the areas where they need to grow and let God work on them.
The Lamb of God is truly here with us. He is ours, and we belong to him as much as anyone else does. And he sends us forth from here to live out our faith by sharing it with the world. Imagine that we were to ask those in our lives who used to practice their faith actively but have turned away from it, “What has taken the place of the Lamb of God? What did you decide was better or more beneficial, and why?”
A few weeks ago I used the analogy of making sure that we don’t trade in a Cadillac for a tricycle. Jesus is the Father’s willing servant who brings salvation to the ends of the earth. He has formed each of us in our mothers’ womb and called us to draw life from him. And when we consider all of the graces he makes available to us in his Church, it’s his way of saying “here are the keys to the Cadillac. Hop in and drive.” The encounter with the Living God at every Mass is too good an offer to pass up.