Earlier in Mass when we sang The Gloria we referred to Jesus as ‘Lamb of God’; and just before we receive Holy Communion we will do so again, this time singing ‘Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us … and grant us peace.’
The title Lamb of God was given to Jesus only by John the Baptist. It’s recorded only in St John’s Gospel where the title appears at the beginning of Jesus’ public life and is introduced again at its end.
In this Gospel Jesus dies at the moment when lambs were being slaughtered in the Jerusalem Temple during the feast of Passover. This was the annual festival when Jews were celebrating their ancestors’ liberation from Egypt and becoming a free people. Many people went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover while others came together in their homes and other locations – as we do at Christmas or people in the USA do at Thanksgiving – to celebrate the festival.
An essential part of this was to have the same meal their ancestors had the night before their liberation. The Book of Exodus documents this and it consisted primarily of lamb which their ancestors slaughtered the night before their deliverance. It also included unleavened bread – consisting just of flour and water – because they had no time for yeast to do its work before baking. (This is why we use unleavened hosts for consecration at Mass.)
So when the Baptist referred to Jesus as ‘Lamb of God’ he meant that just as the original Passover, with the sacrifice of a lamb, had brought about the Israelites’ freedom from Egypt, so now Jesus – as THE Lamb of God – would bring about a new freedom and relationship for people with God.
Later in Mass we will sing ‘Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us’, and ‘Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, grant us peace’. It’s a declaration that because of what Jesus has done for us – by offering his life in sacrifice, like a sacrificial lamb – any punishment that we might deserve for our sins is lifted or taken away. Because of Jesus, the Lamb of God, our failings and sins are not held against us: Christ has atoned for them.
We sing ‘Lamb of God …’ at the point in Mass when the consecrated bread is being broken into small fragments for us to consume in Holy Communion. This symbolic act of ‘the breaking of the bread’ (as Mass was first known by early Christians) represents the breaking of Christ’s body to bring us into the closest possible relationship with God. May our faith in Jesus as the Lamb of God calm our troubled minds and consciences and, as we later pray, may he grant us peace.
Holy Name, Jesmond
19 January 2020