If you ever find yourself in the city of Ghent, in Belgium, you should go to St Bavo’s Cathedral to see the display of the Flemish masterpiece, The Mystic Lamb.
It was painted by the Van Eyck brothers in the 15th Century. It is one of the most coveted and influential paintings of all time. It was almost destroyed in a fire, burnt by Calvinists, stolen by Napoleon, hunted for by Hitler, stolen and sold repeatedly through the Second World War.
The painting captures a vision of heaven from the book of Revelation. It shows a multitude of people, of different statuses and races, all in harmony, in perfect communion. There is no competition, everyone is loved and valued for themselves, everyone has a place.
At the center, on an altar, stands a lamb, which has been sacrificed, with blood pouring out. This sacrificed lamb is what makes this communion possible. Such communion with God and each other is at the depths of every heart. The reality we find ourselves in, however, is that we are disjointed both within and without. We find so many contradictory desires within us, tearing us apart, drawing us in so many directions, and we find that even with the people closest to us, we are unable to love them as we would like. We experience as much misery as joy in our relationships. This situation of ours, can be analysed through all sorts of lenses. There are all sorts of self-help books and therapies available and there is value in a lot of them.
But the Bible has one diagnosis for our problem. Sin. We experience all this pain and ugliness because of sin. Without that being healed, everything else will only scratch the surface. But what is sin? Sin in the Scriptures, is the refusal to give right praise. St Augustine’s definition follows from this – sin is to turn to the creature rather than the Creator.
God doesn’t require us to praise him because he is an ego-maniac. He has no need of our praise. But praise serves to order us rightly. When we give God the highest place, we learn to see the world created by God out of love, and we value things rightly – we become free. When we refuse to do so, our default position is to live as if everything in this world and all others were created to serve and praise us. We become the center of our world. Our vision of the world becomes terribly distorted. But there’s a multitude walking around believing they are the center of the universe. These centres soon begin to clash. Rather than being ordered in love, everything becomes a competition, it becomes a contest of power. There is no communion, we find ourselves alienated from each other. We are torn in so many directions, being at the mercy of creatures and forces more powerful than ourselves.
This has been our condition since the Fall. But God promised to save us. And he would call to himself one man – Abraham. And to Abraham, will be given the greatest test to which anyone would be subjected. To sacrifice the his only, beloved son Isaac, himself a supernatural gift from God. The test was so great, because the call of Abraham was so great. He was to be the Father of faith, of the new world God was creating.
Abraham, in his willingness to sacrifice his son, will begin the reversal of the Fall. He showed himself willing to sacrifice his future. Abraham chose obedience to the Creator over love for Isaac, whom he had received as complete gift from God. This was the reversal of Adam trying to secure his future by clinging to what was given as gift rather than live in a relationship of love and obedience to the Creator. On Abraham’s sacrifice and radical obedience will be founded the nation of Israel.
They will know themselves as a people set apart to give right praise to God. But Israel’s choosing was never for their own sake. It was always for the salvation of the world, to bring us all into perfect communion with God and each other. They were meant to be like a light to the nations, gathering everyone to God.
Like Abraham, Israel will know that after the Fall, communion with God is possible only through sacrifice. Their temple was built on Mt. Moriah, the site where Abraham was called to sacrifice Isaac. Every morning and evening they offered a lamb in sacrifice. It stood in expiation for their own sins. Because sin results in death, the death of this animal stood in the place of my own failing –this lamb’s blood was poured out in my place. At the same time, there had to be a genuine desire for communion, to overcome my sinfulness and be united with God and with my fellowmen against whom I have sinned. But while the blood of the lamb allowed them entry into the presence of God, it couldn’t heal them; and instead of gathering the nations, Israel, through their sin, would themselves end up being scattered across the nations and their sacrifices abolished.
But there would appear in this darkness, hope in the form of a mysterious figure of the servant of the Lord. Isaiah would prophecy that this servant would gather the tribes of Israel and the rest of the world to himself. And how will he do that? By taking onto himself the sins of Israel and the world, and suffering in their place. He will be the lamb that is led to slaughter without opening its mouth.
And finally, about 500 years after the prophecy of the Servant, about 1000 years after the building of the Temple and 2000 years after the piercing cry of Isaac – Father, where is the lamb? would come the answer from John the Baptist – Behold the Lamb of God who is taking away the sin of the world. While Abraham was prevented from sacrificing his son, the Creator would not be stopped from being offered up for us creatures.
This Jesus is not simply one among the many lambs, one among the many alternatives for the problem of the world. He is the lamb of the One God taking away the sin of the whole world. And he takes away not sins, but sin – not just the effects but the root cause – not just the foul deeds but the original guilt.
The lambs that were sacrificed could never take away sin. They only reminded him that he was a sinner and reminded God of his promise that he would come to our help. But this one, through his perfect union with God, and being one with us, destroys the power of sin once and for all in his own body, on the Cross. Through his body, he will heal and unite as one the scattered children of God. By his stripes we are healed. And he is the one who is taking away the sins of the world. Not just once – the tense is Present Participle – but this constantly happens. Where? Right here, in the Eucharist. This is where the sacrifice of Calvary, where that sin was atoned for once and for all is represented. This is not simply a re-enactment of the Last Supper. This is Calvary. Here, the once-for-all sacrifice is actually happening, it is re-presented. Only because of that can we partake of what happened 2000 years ago. Here, we can be healed in our deepest selves. This mass we come to on a Sunday is not simply an obligation, it is life itself. This is medicine for our wounds. That is why we begin with a confession of our sins. Here, our wounds can be healed and we can be brought into communion with each other. But we need to want this – we will receive as much as we are desperate for it. A friend of mine used to say, the Mass is the one place where someone can walk in, a wretched sinner and walk out a saint. If we are willing to admit our sins, here is the lamb of God, who will take away your sins and mine. Blessed are those called to his banquet.