Sacrifice played a big part in the lives of the Jews, from the sacrifices of Cain and Able in the book of Genesis, right down to Jesus’ own day. The sacrifices were not sufficient to make up for the sins of men but were necessary as a precursor of what was to happen. An innocent victim, often a lamb, paid for the sins of the guilty. One sacrifice of particular note in the Old Testament is that of the King of Salem and priest of the Most High God Melchizedek, who offered bread and wine as a sacrifice, which is significant as the victims of sacrifice were usually animals.
Then there is the sacrifice of the Passover which first took place when the Israelites were held captive in Egypt under the rule of the mighty god-king Pharaoh. After the first nine plagues sent by God had failed to convince Pharaoh to let His people go, He told Moses that He planned to send the Angel of Death to strike down the first-born son of all in Egypt, except for those who marked their doors with the blood of a lamb, as He instructed. They were to sacrifice and eat the lamb. If so they would be saved, if not they would perish. This should bring to mind the words of Christ when He spoke of Himself as the bread of life. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Abraham and Isaac – A Prefiguring of Christ
Around two thousand years before Christ, Abraham was called by God to sacrifice his only son Isaac on Mount Moriah, the mountain upon which in later years would stand the Temple. This was God’s great test of Abraham’s love for Him and Abraham was prepared to carry it out.
He had placed the wood for the burnt offering upon the back of his son, and Isaac carried it up the mountain to the place where he was (unknowingly) to be sacrificed. About two thousand years later another Son made His way to the top of a hill upon which He was to be killed, and He too carried the wood on which He would be sacrificed on His own back. Yet He was not the only son of a mere man as Isaac was of Abraham, He was the only Son of God.
As they walked, Isaac asked his father where the lamb for the burnt offering was. Abraham replied that, “God will provide himself a lamb for the burnt offering.”
When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there, laid the wood upon it, and bound Isaac on the altar upon the wood. He then raised his knife to slay his son.
“But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” [Genesis 22] Then they saw a ram caught by its horns in a bush and sacrificed it in Isaac’s place, for as Abraham said, “God will provide himself a lamb for the burnt offering.”
Two thousand years later, as the Son of God was laid upon the wood of the cross, nailed to it and raised up for all men to see, He was indeed the Lamb provided by God, and yet He was God. In such a way God was providing Himself, a Lamb of sacrifice for the sins of men.
The Lamb of God
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccáta mundi: miserére nobis…
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: have mercy on us…
Jesus is often referred to as the Lamb of God, in Scripture and in the Mass, but just what does this mean? Why is He referred to as a lamb?
Like the lamb of the Passover, Christ was without blemish and not one of His bones was broken. For as we are told in the Gospels, though it was customary for the legs of the crucifixion victims to be broken, to hasten death, the soldiers, coming to Christ found that He was already dead, and pierced His side with a spear to make certain. In his Gospel, St. John, when telling of Christ’s appearance before Pilate he says that it was the day of preparation for the Passover, about the sixth hour. To his original readers, who would have been mainly Jews, this would be a much more meaningful statement than what time of day it was. They would have known that the sixth hour on the day of preparation for the Passover was the time that the priest began to slaughter the lambs for the Passover. He was explaining that the slaughter of the Lamb of God was beginning.
As Jesus was the Lamb of God, sacrificed for the sins of men, His words at the Last Supper, “Take, eat; this is my body.” and, “Drink of it [the cup], all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. [Matt 26; 26-28], make perfect sense. For like the Passover lamb which was to be eaten after it was sacrificed, men must eat of the Lamb who was sacrificed for their sins, that they might be saved and have eternal life. Yet the Lamb was only sacrificed once on the Cross, so how could all men down the ages eat of His flesh and drink of His blood?