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Lamb of God

The General Confession said before communion in the Episcopal Church is pretty pallid stuff when compared with the one that preceded it. Consider this from the version in the Book of Common Prayer that was used until the 1970s: “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.” Now there is a mouthful! You don’t hear a lot about wickedness these days, even though there appears to be no less of it now. Nor do you hear much discussion about God’s wrath, at least not in liberal Protestant denominations like the one I frequent. Yet one might argue that the sacrament of communion would make a lot more sense if we went into it with a greater conviction of our manifold sins and wickedness, to say nothing of God’s wrath as a consequence.

Among religious rites, communion is surely among the strangest, albeit considerably toned down from the blood rituals that preceded it. With the celebrants all dressed up in their immaculate clerical robes, you get barely a hint that they are essentially performing a butcher’s function, serving up the body and blood of Christ that has been sacrificed upon an altar. This, in fact, was precisely what the priests did at the temple in Jerusalem when they carved up livestock to atone for the sins of the people. Their belief was that there could be no atonement for sin without the shedding of blood, albeit not the sinner’s. There is a further substitution in the Christian rite, with the bread and wine of the sacrament standing in for the body and blood of Christ. Still, the underlying dynamics are that God’s son must be killed and eaten so that people do not suffer the consequences of their manifold sins and wickedness.

The dramatic highpoint of the communion service occurs when the priest breaks the bread (body) and the Agnus Dei is sung:

O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace.

This litany is taken from a verse in the Gospel of St. John, when John the Baptist first meets Jesus and recognizes him as the promised Messiah: "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” The term “Lamb of God” (agnus dei in Latin) refers to the paschal lamb that is ritually sacrificed during Passover. Originally, of course, the Hebrew people were instructed to smear the blood of a lamb on the doorposts of their houses so the angel of death would spare them in his mission to slay the first-born of the Egyptians. The phrase is normally repeated three times these days but may be repeated as often as necessary while the celebrant is breaking the bread of the sacrament.

The Agnus Dei is a plea for mercy, repeated twice, then sung a third time, ending with the entreaty, “Grant us thy peace.” All is predicated on the assumption that God is wrathful -- as indeed he ought to be, based on a fair reading of human behavior up to now. But is that how God truly is, or is it merely how we think he ought to be, based on how we are? “God is man writ large,” wrote the 19th-century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, who believed that humans tend to make gods in their own image, rather than the other way around. Feuerbach was an atheist; still, he had a point. How can we see God as he truly is if we are burdened by a sense of our manifold sins and wickedness?

Consider the reaction of the Prophet Isaiah when he had a vision of the Lord seated upon his throne: "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" We catch a glimpse of God, and all we can think of is how we must appear to him. Oh, woe is me! If the Lord was wrathful here, no mention was made of it. He dispatched one of his angels with a burning coal. He told Isaiah, "Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven."

If, instead of making gods in our own image, what would happen if we remade ourselves in his? How would we be then? I’m willing to bet we would be at peace.

John 1:29
Isaiah 6:5
Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity

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