Our little church choir was rehearsing Easter music – Behold the Lamb of God from Handel’s Messiah. I love it. We basses shine at the dramatic opening with a full octave leap in the first two notes. After sufficient drama has been squeezed from the opening line, Handel moves on to the next phrase: “Who taketh away the sins of the world”. As I strain for the high notes in that line, this geezer’s rebel voice pipes up in my head:
“After 2000 years, look at the mess of sins cropping up in this world – Syria, homelessness, the Newtown shooting, and on and on. And what is a lamb of God anyway?”
And then this geezer’s inner scholar looks up from his book,
“Use all that learning you absorbed in divinity school. You know perfectly well what that means. Pay attention to your singing, or you’ll go flat.”
OK. When he first saw Jesus, John the Baptist blurted out to the crowd around him, “ (John 1:19)
Here is (Behold) the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
This phrase has become the Agnus Dei, Latin for “Lamb of God”, and is said or sung today in Catholic churches at every mass, and at this season also in Protestant churches. Since most of us have no clue what it means, this phrase helps shove the church to the sidelines of our brains, so it won’t interfere with our survival in this high-speed economic downturn.
For the Hebrews, at the beginning of the first millennium when John and Jesus lived, if you killed a member of another family or tribe, that family or tribe had the right to kill you or one of your family or tribe. “An eye for an eye”. The only way to atone for sin was to shed blood.
One purpose of the Temple at Jerusalem was to show God’s mercy by accepting the blood of an animal in place of human blood to take away your sin. If you sacrificed a lamb from your flock in God’s temple, your sin would be taken away – especially if you invited the aggrieved family to share the roast lamb feast.
Perhaps you have felt deeply wounded by a tragic death. You will naturally yearn to lash out at someone. But you also may find a surprusing compassion in your heart for the one who caused the death.
Following the shooting, the people of Newtown, CT, have expressed a strange “love” for all people. The Blacks of South Africa have formed an amazing government along with the Whites who had subjugated them for centuries. Jesus stood his ground before Pilate, but told his friend, Peter, to put away his sword. Jesus accepted his own death rather than shed blood.
Jesus’s example has inspired believers and non believers alike to embrace what Walter Wink called Jesus’s third way – neither revenge nor surrender.– in order to produce reconciliation. So, my inner rebel, Jesus does embody that lamb of God, repaying the fear-based cruelty of Pilate with non-violent resistance to his power. That really does take away the sin. Of course it cost Jesus his life. If I really follow that third way, it might cost my life too. (print: The Lamb of God, Marc Chagall)