At the end of the Rite of Peace at the Mass, we address Jesus as ‘the Lamb of God’ four times in quick succession; three times in the ‘Lamb of God’ hymn sung by the congregation and once by the priest when he quotes the words of John the Baptist, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” In both cases, the title is explicitly connected to the action of ‘taking away the sins of the world.’
In the Eastern churches, the words used for the Eucharistic bread are actually the Greek and Slavonic words for “Lamb,” while in the west we have traditionally used the word “host.” The “Lamb of God” prayers were introduced to the Western Liturgy in the 7th century through the efforts of Pope Saint Sergius I.
I’m sure we are all at least somewhat aware of the deep meaning behind the title “Lamb of God.” But I guarantee that there it is more involved than you and I realize (I can’t even try to explain here the portion I know. As an intro, I highly suggest you consider reading “Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist,” by Brant Pitre. There is also a condensed version of the book as a talk that can be found on youtube.) It is one of those things that never ceases to be a fruitful and awe-inspiring topic of study. I shall try to give a brief summary. In the Old Testament book of Exodus, we are told of the Hebrew people being enslaved to the Egyptians and the work that God does through his servant Moses to free them from their captivity. The final and definitive event is the Passover. Moses instructs the people to follow a procedure as a ritual act of faith in God. The most central part of this ritual is the sacrificing of a unblemished Lamb, the spreading of its blood on their doorposts, and the communal consumption of its flesh. By this ritual act, the Hebrews will be protected from the curse that will come upon the land and all creatures that will finally break the will of the Egyptians and cause them to let the Hebrew people go.
As a literal event, the Hebrew people are freed from slavery and embark on a journey in which God will be their only help, their sole source of security, guidance, and sustenance, until they reach the special land He promised would be their own. As a symbol, God gives us a foreshadowing of the sacrifice that will free us from the curse of sin. The blood of this sacrifice will be our salvation. The eating of the flesh of this sacrifice will be our freedom and our spiritual life. But unlike this original Passover event, the future sacrifice will not be some pretty, white baby sheep. And it shall not only be a symbol of faithfulness. It will actually achieve the forgiveness of our sins. This sacrifice must be the greatest sacrifice, the most perfect sacrifice, the offering of something beyond compare, something far beyond our ability to provide. As foreshadowed in the story of Abraham and Isaac on the mountain, “God will himself provide the lamb.” (Genesis 22:8). Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the ‘unblemished Lamb,’ whose sacrifice can actually take away the sins of the world. He goes to death willingly without complaint, as Isaiah prophecies, “like a lamb led to slaughter.” (Isaiah 53:7.) So now, as we prepare for the consummation of this Passover sacrifice, we simply recognize the reality before us. “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” In this line, we have the summary of the whole, wonderful web of Old Testament prophetic foreshadowing. In the Eucharistic host is the fulfillment of all the Scriptures, the climax of the story of God preparing humanity to receive His most precious gift. To these words, the congregation responds,
“Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”
We will examine and reflect on these words in the next installment of the Liturgy Corner.