The Supper of the Lamb

If we search the Sacred Scriptures, we shall find much lamb imagery preparing the way for Jesus Christ. In Genesis 22 there is the episode in which God calls upon Abraham to surrender what is most important to him: his son, Isaac. This scene, filled with great pathos and drama, sees the intervention of an angel preventing Abraham from carrying out this order to sacrifice his only son and seemingly all his hopes and dreams. Instead, God provides another sacrifice, a ram caught in the thickets nearby. A ram — “a male ram” — substitutes for Isaac.

Hundreds of years later in Egypt, the Lord instructs Moses and Aaron to tell the people of Israel to celebrate a sacrificial meal that will forever recall the events of the night during which He struck Egypt, slaying the first born sons and male animals. Thus the Lord did to Pharaoh as he had done to God's sons when Pharaoh began his war on the Hebrew boys (Ex 1). On that night the Lord “passed over” the houses of the Hebrews, delivering them from death and giving them life. Whatever its origins before this event, the Passover would now forever commemorate the salvation that the Lord wrought for Israel.

Taking a closer look at the Passover ritual described in Exodus 12, it is possible to discern three distinct movements: the selection and subsequent sacrifice of the victim (Ex 12:3-6), the blood rite (Ex. 12:7) and finally the sacrificial meal (Ex 12:8-10). The victim is specially mandated: an unblemished, one-year-old male. It is interesting to consider this a little further. The term “unblemished” comes from a Hebrew word meaning positively whole or complete. “Unblemished” expresses the idea that this lamb should be perfect: nothing but the best should be offered to God. It is easy to see that without this stipulation, one might be inclined to offer an old or sickly lamb, one no longer useful, rather than a healthy, strong lamb. But the significance of “unblemished” goes further because the Hebrew word “tamim” later acquires a moral sense. In Psalm 101:2, the king speaks of “persevering in the way of perfection” (tamim), i.e., to live according to God's commandments. Job is called to be “tam” indicating that he is blameless before God (1:1). In a deeper but related way, our Lady is called “immaculate” meaning “without stain” because she is all-holy and conceived without Original Sin on account of her unique call as Mother of God.

Moreover, St. Peter attributes this moral quality to Jesus when he reminds us that we have been redeemed “by Christ's blood that is beyond all price, the blood of the spotless, unblemished lamb,…” (1 Pt 1:19). Therefore, we see how the original paschal lambs, who were perfect and without blemish, point to Christ, the true and eternal Paschal Lamb (Rv 5:6), who is perfect and without sin. But Christ does more than repeat what has gone before Him. Rather He gives it more profound and definitive meaning.

In John 1:29, St. John the Baptist identifies Jesus as the “the Lamb of God” and very significantly adds “who takes away the sins of the world.” This addition is important because the lamb in the Passover ritual had nothing to do with forgiveness of sin. Even later Jewish tradition, which did in fact come to attribute a redemptive value to the blood of the lamb — we can see above reflected in St. Peter's statement — never connected the idea of the sacrifice of the paschal lamb with the forgiveness of sin. The Lord saved His people from their enemies and the sins of their enemies. But Christ will do differently: He will save us from our own sins, from our own self-destructive choices and even dispositions.

Jesus shows us that the death and slavery that Israel suffered at the hands of Pharaoh and the Egyptians is a sign of a deeper disorder in creation: sin. It is sin and not just the sin of others from which we must be saved; but rather our own sins that deliver us into slavery and deservedly bring us death. From these there is no escape possible through mere human means. Only God is able to reconcile what our sin has destroyed. We shall now see the great genius of Christ who in Himself unites the Paschal Lamb and the Suffering Servant.

Already Jeremiah had referred to himself — the persecuted prophet — as “a trusting lamb led to the slaughter” (Jer 11:19). Isaiah says the same about the Suffering Servant: “… as a lamb led to the slaughter, like a sheep before the shearers, silent and not opening his mouth (Is 53:7). The Suffering Servant takes upon himself the sins of us all (Is 53:4-6) so by the forgiveness of our sin, we might be redeemed: delivered from sin and death (Is 53:10-11). This is precisely what Jesus did for us. Moreover, these lamb qualities of the Servant, which signify humility and resignation, are attributed to Jesus. He does not open His mouth to defend himself before the Sanhedrin (Mt 26:63) and keeps silent before Pilate (Jn 19:9). In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Philip explains to the Ethiopian eunuch that Isaiah 53:7 refers to Jesus (Acts 8:31-35). Christ synthesizes the Paschal Lamb and Suffering Servant to create something new, something unexpected. God Himself becomes the victim sacrificed — as the Lamb of God — whose blood — as the Suffering Servant — redeems us from our sins and the death we deserve on account of them, and makes peace between Him and us (Col 1:20).

Christ communicates this redemption and new life to us most of all through His Holy Eucharist. Just as the Hebrews ate the roasted flesh of the Paschal Lamb, so we too eat His flesh and drink His blood, proclaiming His death until He comes again (1 Cor 11:26). By receiving His Body and Blood, the Holy Eucharist, we nourish our communion with Him and His holy ones, which began at our baptism when we were delivered from sin and death, and we are strengthened for our continuing pilgrim journey to the wedding feast of the Lamb.

We conclude where we began, noting the richer meaning of invitation to holy Communion at the elevation of the Host in the Latin original: “Ecce Agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccata mundi, Beati, qui ad cenam Agni vocati sunt” — “Behold the Lamb of God; Behold Him, who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are they who are called to the Supper of the Lamb.” This supper, this feast, which we celebrate at the Mass and in particular on this Holy Thursday, is the same feast being eternally celebrated in Heaven — the Wedding Feast of the Lamb (Rv 19:7). You and I have received the awesome invitation to rejoice forever, to be full of happiness because our sins have been taken away and we are so blessed as to be able to eat His flesh and drink His blood so that we might have life eternal with Him (Jn 6:54).

(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

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