Behold the Lamb of God

DEACON DOUGLAS MCMANAMAN

Sometimes students will ask: How is it that Christ’s dying on a cross forgives sins? What does it mean to say that Christ died for our sins? How does a death forgive sins?

Over 2000 years before John the Baptist said those words, God revealed himself to Abraham and made a covenant with him. He promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation, that his descendents would be as numerous as the stars of the sky. When Sarah finally gave birth to Isaac, their first born son, God commanded Abraham to sacrifice the child as an offering to Him. Abraham obeyed, and set out for the land of Moriah: "Thereupon Abraham took the wood for the holocaust and laid it on his son Isaac's shoulders, while he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two walked on together, Isaac spoke to his father Abraham. "Father!" he said. "Yes, son," he replied. Isaac continued, "Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the holocaust?" "Son," Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the holocaust."

The angel of the Lord stopped Abraham and revealed that God was pleased with his faith. Instead, a ram was sacrificed.

But Abraham said to his son that God would provide the lamb for the holocaust. That promise had to be fulfilled. It was not fulfilled then. In this gospel, written 2000 years afterwards, John the Baptist calls attention to the fulfillment of that promise: "Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world".

The sacrifice of Isaac would not have taken away the sins of the world, and neither would the sacrifice of the ram have done so. The entire scene of the sacrifice of Isaac foreshadows the sacrifice that is to come, and that future sacrifice would also be of a first born son, and he too would carry the wood for the sacrifice on his shoulders, as Isaac did, and the sacrifice will take place in the land of Moriah, on the Moriah mountain range, which is where Mount Calvary is located.

Only the lamb of God could take away the sins of the world.

Sometimes students will ask: How is it that Christ's dying on a cross forgives sins? What does it mean to say that Christ died for our sins? How does a death forgive sins?


I have always found St. Anselm's way of explaining this to be useful for students. If I were to make a comparison, imagine you bought a brand new car and brought it to the Church one Sunday to show your fellow parishioners. Then a perfect stranger comes up and takes out a key and scratches it, out of sheer envy.

Justice, or the order of fairness, has been disrupted by that person's malicious act. The traditional image representing justice has been a blindfolded lady holding a scale, because an unjust act tips the scale, disrupting the order, creating an imbalance. A good judge will restore that order by balancing the scale of justice. The stranger will be required to pay for the damage. If a new paint job will cost two or three thousand dollars, he will be required to pay that. A $50 fine only leaves the scale unbalanced, but a 50 thousand dollar fine would bring about an opposite disorder of justice.

Now, whenever we sin against another, our sin is of finite gravity. Its seriousness might be great, but it is limited. I am finite in every way, and you too are finite, and our injustice against one another is of finite gravity. For the most part, we can make satisfaction for the debts we create by our acts of justice. There are exceptions, but the task of a good judge is to restore that order of fairness as perfectly as possible.

Now, although man cannot free himself from this quandary, the divine genius and generosity has a way out.

But we all have a debt to God that we simply cannot repay. Everything we've been given, every good that we enjoy, has been given by God, for He is the First Cause of whatever exists and of whatever continues to exist. Even our acts of thanksgiving offered to God are themselves His gifts. He is the First Cause of everything that is good.

But to sin against God is to commit a sin of infinite gravity. To sin is to create a debt that is impossible to pay, impossible to make up for. Everything we do is finite, everything we can offer as payment of that debt is finite, and a finite payment cannot pay a debt that is infinite.

Only God can satisfy an infinite debt. But God is not the sinner; He is the one who is sinned against. It is not His obligation to pay that debt. It is man's obligation to pay it; for man is the one who sinned. And so we find ourselves in a quandary from which there is no escape. And so a fundamental truth of the faith is that man cannot save himself. Man is lost.

Now, although man cannot free himself from this quandary, the divine genius and generosity has a way out. God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, joins a human nature to Himself and is born of a woman. Jesus is fully God and fully man. He is one Person, but two natures (human and divine). As man, he can act on our behalf. He can come before the Father and offer, on our behalf, a sacrifice of reparation to cancel our debt that sin created. And because he is God the Son, his offering has an infinite value. He gave his blood. For the Jews, the life was in the blood. For Christ to give his blood is for him to give his life, and his life is the life of the eternal Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity. His offering of Himself to the Father on our behalf is an acceptable offering, and that offering alone cancels the debt of sin.

And so when John the Baptist declares: "Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world", he indicates Jesus' most fundamental identity. He is the lamb sent by God to be sacrificed for the sins of man.

And life that is lived in the Person of Christ, the Lamb of God who gives his life for us, is to be a life lived in that very sacrifice. That's the paradox of life in Christ; that our happiness, our well-being, our emotional, mental, spiritual health stems from a life lived in and out of his sacrifice. How can a happy, joy filled life be identified with a life lived in the Lamb of God, who came to suffer and die?


One has to live the paradox in order to really know that this is truly the case. Christ pointed out that there is a war going on within the human person, between two opposing parties: the spirit and the flesh. The flesh refers to an inclination in all of us to self-seeking, a propensity to put the self first and above all. It's a twisted law that exists within us that we will never be freed from except at the very moment of our death. The rest of our life has to be spent battling against that tendency within ourselves to a life without suffering, whatever particular form that inclination to self may take in our lives – because every life is different. Some may struggle with the need to be right all the time, some may struggle with the need to be recognized, the need to be the center of attention, some may struggle with inordinate anger against others, some with greed for more or the need for complete security to the point where there is little thought for the needs of others, some people may hate to work and would rather spend their lives in leisure – which is why wealth is a very dangerous thing. Others have an inclination and desire to live always physically gratified.

The problem with the world is that it sees nothing wrong with this. That's what most people live for naturally, and most people believe that this is natural and good. And yet we're puzzled that, generally speaking, most people are unhappy.

The problem with the world is that it sees nothing wrong with this. That's what most people live for naturally, and most people believe that this is natural and good. And yet we're puzzled that, generally speaking, most people are unhappy.

Christ revealed that this is twisted. He came to show us what it means to be man, and he came to heal us of that fundamental spiritual sickness. When we are sick, struck with the flu, or suffering from a toothache, all we can think of is ourselves. The entire focus of our lives is towards the self. But health is characterized by the ability to focus on that which is outside of us, the ability to forget the self. The word holiness is derived from the word ‘health'.

When we enter into Christ, who is the lamb of God, and decide through a free act of the will to live not for the self first, and when we become aware of the war within ourselves and enter into that war on the side of the spirit against the flesh, we will begin to experience the joy of coming to know Christ. And that joy will radiate from our eyes. And people will see it; and so many of the hardships that plague us every day will no longer bother us as much. Our insecurities, our petty jealousies, our need to control, our fears, our general preoccupation with the self will begin to dissipate. We'll know Christ and the love he has for us, and that will take us out of ourselves, and nothing else will matter except making that love known to others.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Deacon Douglas McManaman. "Behold the Lamb of God." CERC (January 11, 2011).

Printed with permission of Deacon Douglas McManaman.

THE AUTHOR

Doug McManaman is a Deacon and a Religion and Philosophy teacher at Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy in Markham, Ontario, Canada. He is the past president of the Canadian Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. He maintains the following web site for his students: A Catholic Philosophy and Theology Resource Page, in support of his students. He studied Philosophy at St. Jerome's College in Waterloo, and Theology at the University of Montreal. Deacon McManaman is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2011 Douglas McManaman




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