Religious imagery turns a lot of people off, I think. I mean, here we are in the 21st century, having gone to the moon, having seen the earth from outer space, having explored the realm of string theory, and then thinking of the deity as a blue-skinned woman with many, many arms, if you happen to be Hindu. Those two don’t seem to go together so well. It’s hard to think of yourself as a rational citizen of an earth, enlightened by science, and believing in those ancient images of winged angels and such. At least I know that I was, in my youth, put off by the Hare Krishna followers who appeared to worship a blue guy. Those beliefs seemed to belong to a long bygone era where the gods had wings on their feet and tridents in their hands. I just couldn’t imagine Thor singing “If I Had a Hammer”.
But then, as the years went by, and I studied, and I mean really studied religion, I found that those images were never meant to be taken as the reality as such. Nobody, not even the Hindus, was suggesting that there was some giant elephant God running about playing with our destinies. All those images were meant to describe in a way that words could not, the nature of the living energy that permeates the universe, which we call God, for want of a better name. Once you come to understand the meaning of the image, then the image falls away, or not. Sometimes the image still may help you reach out to the divine. Keeping your focus on Mary as the female force of the divine allows you to tap into that energy with an image that you more or less understand and can accept.
Two thousand years ago, when Jesus walked the earth, people seriously believed in those half-human, half-animal god beings. And their experience was with a kind of earthly grandeur of kings and palaces. If he had told those people that eternal life consisted of a kind of transcendence from this plane of energy to some other dimensional frequency, they would have thought him possessed of some kind of demon and would have stoned him to death without ever listening to anything else he had to say. Had he said that they could be spiritually connected to the godhead divine vibration, they would have labeled him a blasphemer. Of course, they did anyway, but that is neither here nor there.
If you’re going to teach people, you have to use images they understand. It is difficult to understand the concept of negative numbers to children. They don’t really understand the idea of having less than nothing. That’s kind of weird for them. I usually explain it to them by saying, “Look, you’re in the liquor store with your best friend and you want a soda and a candy bar, but you only have a dollar. Your friend offers to loan you another dollar so you’ll have enough. Now you have the soda and the candy but you have even less than no money. Because now, when you do get a dollar, you have to give it to your friend.” Then they seem to get it. Oh, negative numbers are like owing your friend money. In my own personal finances I have come to understand negative numbers all too well.
I suppose for us, in this day and age, with our view of the universe, God would have to come to us as extra-terrestrials or something. We could believe in that. If you saw a winged person in white robes and a harp you’d simply stop using those recreational substances. But if you saw an alien being, well there’s nothing too weird about that. We’ve seen that in the movies since like forever.
So when Christians talk about “the Lamb of God”, it kind of turns off the more rational amongst us. It harkens back to those ancient images of the pagan religions and reminds us that the more we think about some of the stories in the bible, the crazier they sound. And it’s been my mission to take those crazy stories and sort of make them sound less crazy. You know, perception is everything with us. It’s all how you look at things. When you put flesh and blood on those long ago people, the stories don’t sound so weird. Well, okay, some of them still sound a little weird, but at least they are understandable.
The whole idea of “the Lamb of God” goes back to the Old Testament and the book of Exodus. Moses, as played by Charleton Heston, came to Yul Brynner and demanded that he grant the Hebrew people their freedom. Pharaoh, being thousands of miles away from the Mexican border, had a serious need for manual labor and refused to allow the Hebrews to leave Egypt and return to their homeland. So God, according to the story, sent a few plagues down on their Egyptian asses, including the plague of hemorrhoids…seriously. You wouldn’t want to walk like an Egyptian back then, I can tell you. Anyway, one of the plagues was the death of all the first born. God told Moses to have each of the Hebrew families to kill a lamb and smear the blood on the door so the Angel of Death ™ would know whom NOT to smite. It worked. Pharaoh let them go and they went, taking a lot of Egyptian gold with them.
This event would be celebrated each year once the Jews (who weren’t really Jews yet) had returned to the Land of Milk and Honey TM as the Feast of Passover, since the Angel of Death TM had passed over their houses. Each year, each family was to sacrifice a lamb, one without blemish, and serve the lamb at the Passover meal. The lamb was to be a male. It was to be killed precisely at three o’clock in the afternoon. The blood was to be caught in cups and sprinkled on the altar. The Old Testament, in the book of Leviticus, called for a lamb to be sacrificed for the forgiveness of sins by the deity. Apparently the all mighty has a taste for lamb.
Anyway, Jesus came to be seen by the gospel writers as representative of the entire Jewish people. And so, as the unblemished Lamb of God, he could stand in as a sacrifice for the sins of humankind. Since one man, Adam (which, translated, simply means “a man”), brought death to humankind through sin (and that’s another whole topic for discussion), then Jesus could, as blameless, atone for that sin through his death. Thus, the Angel of Death TM might pass over us and we could have eternal life and be reunited with God. We spoke of resurrection and reunion last week.
This concept in Christianity comes of Isaiah, Chapter 53, which describes the Messiah as a suffering servant.
“He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity, One of those from whom men hide their faces, spurned, and we held him in no esteem. Yet it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured, While we thought of him as stricken, as one smitten by God and afflicted. But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, Upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed. We had all gone astray like sheep, each following his own way; But the LORD laid upon him the guilt of us all.”
So the image of the “Lamb of God” would have made perfect sense to the average person back in first century Judea. It would have been something they could and did understand. They didn’t all believe it, but they all understood the idea. So when John talks about the first time John the Baptist sees Jesus in the first chapter of that gospel, he has him say, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. He is the one of whom I said, 'A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.' I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel. John testified further, saying, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon him. I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, 'On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the holy Spirit.' Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.”
As much as I would like to say that John here only means that Jesus is A son of God, just as we are all children of God, the Greek is pretty clear that John is saying “THE” Son of God with a capital S. This passage, I might add, seems to conflict with the story by Luke, which claims that John the Baptist is the cousin of Jesus. But then I have cousins I have never met. So maybe they never got a chance to know one another. John the Baptist, I might add, was the son of a temple priest, so the image of “The Lamb of God” would have been very clear to him and one with which he would have been quite comfortable.
Now I know that many of you don’t believe that whole Adam and Eve story and the need for any kind of forgiveness of sins or repentance for the acceptance of God. And that makes perfect sense in light of our culture and our world. But those people did. As a teacher in an elementary school I can tell you that kids come up to me all the time complaining about various pains and maladies. The cure for all of these is quite simple: have a drink of water. It always works. Stomach ache? Have a drink of water. Your tooth hurts? Have a drink of water. And it isn’t even FDA approved. Seriously, sometimes you do have to send a kid to the nurse, but most of the time the water trick works. It works because the kids trust me and so they believe it will work. Foolish children.
Nevertheless, those people back in first century Judea believed that they were separated from God because of the sin of a long ago ancestor. And it would have made perfect sense to them that the death of Jesus, a holy man, would have reconciled God to humankind, allowing them to once again feel one with the creator-spirit. The Buddhists tell us that the separation of humankind from the divine energy is one of illusion. Once you overcome that illusion, you can be one with everything, just like the hot dog. The death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ allowed those people, those who believed in it, the ability to overcome that separation and once again be reconciled and reunited with the godhead.
Did it really happen that way? There is no way for us to know. I do know that you don’t read the bible like a novel, chapter by chapter. As you can see, just to explain this one concept I had to refer to four different books that intertwine like a tapestry. Those books were all written thousands of years apart, and beyond that, they were a part of a great oral tradition. And yet, for the most part, the stories mesh and connect beautifully like a beautiful fugue by Bach. Does it all make sense? It does, in its own environment.
Does it make sense in our environment? Well, the images are a little hard to take sometimes, but the lessons are still there. I don’t pretend to understand the sense of it all. I understand that it seems a little weird that the divine energy would manifest itself here two thousand years ago in the person of one guy in order for us to be reunited with that spirit. But then, the idea of a computer using a bunch of 1s and 0s to do the things it does seems a little weird to me too. I don’t have to understand it to accept it.
A lot of agnostics and atheists have a problem believing in some magical guy up in the sky who watches over us and listens to us. Well, put that way, I would have a hard time believing in it too. But I don’t think of God in those terms. That doesn’t mean that there is no intelligence of some kind that is involved in some way with our universe. In fact, every piece of evidence I see would seem to indicate the contrary. There have been too many supernatural occurrences in human history to discount the idea totally. Our understanding of science can’t account for them all. Physicists don’t understand what dark matter is, but they accept its existence. I don’t begin to understand the nature of the divine and I doubt that I or anyone else ever could. But I can accept it is there.
So I wrap my mind around religious imagery because it is the only way my human mind can hold onto any semblance of understanding of God, whoever or whatever S/He may be. And so I can, like millions of other Roman Catholics every day, pray:
“Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. Grant us peace.”
Peace be with you.