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Ecce agnus dei: Behold! the Lamb of God

Ecce agnus dei: Behold! the Lamb of God

Behold! The Lamb of God

I used to think Lent was a dreary time. I’ve changed my mind.

The Lenten season encompasses the 40-days between Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Holy Week (Protestants prefer to call it “Passion Week”). Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, moves to Maundy Thursday and culminates in Good Friday. Some of you may be skeptical of paying much attention to those days. We’re Easter people, after all. We focus on Christ’s resurrection. All those “holy days” may still strike you as so much extra-biblical stuff that distracts from our risen LORD himself.

We may smile smugly when we see people with cross-shaped bits of charcoal smudged onto their foreheads on Ash Wednesday; or wince when we see a neighbor wearing a crucifix instead of an empty cross; or shake our heads in mild superiority when we hear Catholics talk of giving up such-and-such- for Lent.

To be sure, we’re more Roman Catholic-friendly than we used to be. We recognize serious Catholics as our like-minded Christian allies in combating serious moral-social evils. We like the Roman church’s increased emphasis on Bible reading. And we probably saw the last pope and see the current one as devout, godly men. Yet if only all that Mariology could be abandoned, and all those symbols and rituals….

Beware symbols becoming idols
Having had parents and other forebears who were staunchly Reformed, I grew up with all those misgivings. My father emphasized that we human beings (frail, malleable creatures that we are) too often allow our fallen nature to gravitate toward Self, not God. We have a knack for inventing things that pull us away from our Creator-Redeemer, even sometimes when we think we’re moving toward him. My dad thought extra-biblical ritual could lead to that.

The Israelites practiced God-given rituals. But when they asked Aaron to make them a golden calf to worship (while Moses was too-long stranded on that fearsome mountain) were they saying to themselves: God did amazing things to get us out of Egypt, but now let’s forget about him; let’s worship this shiny calf  and never look back? I suspect not. I surmise that what they did say might have been: God hasn’t shown us any miracles lately; he’s silent, he’s distant; he’s up there in the smoke with Moses, and in fact we’re not entirely sure that Moses, or God, are even there any longer. Let’s ask Aaron our priest – our mediator – to make a lovely expensive calf of gold to represent God, so that we can worship him more tangibly. We need to see him!

Whether the Israelites saw that calf as a picture-symbol of God himself or as a pagan god to replace their covenant God, creating that impressively wrought metallic bovine visual aid was still dead wrong. God created a world full of marvelous color and texture, and gave us eyes to see it. We human beings have ever been enthralled with visual aids, symbols, icons. That is all the more true now, when communicating in pictures (graphics, we now call them) has become an obsession. But obsessions become idols.

The Israelites allowed a thing to usurp God’s place. Included in “things” are not just statues – which we Reformed people aren’t much into anyway – but relationships, children, spouses, friends, jobs, hobbies, celebrations, rituals (public, church-based or private). Any good thing and any relationship can become an idol if we let it. But if our hearts remain right we will never become idolators.

God communicates in symbols
Over the years I’ve experienced that tangible observances during Lent are helpful to keep my focus on Christ and the depth of his love. That can never be dreary. Lent is a penitential season which forces me, alone and with fellow Christians, to enumerate my sins, to consider the depths of our Savior’s suffering for our sakes.

Our lives are full of symbols If you have a computer, they’re all over your desktop. There they’re called icons.  Funny thing about that name: icons were first of all religious symbols. A small painting of Christ on the cross reminds us to daily thank him for our salvation. A bumper sticker bearing the Ichthus fish (early-church-era acronym and symbol for Christ) may announce our faith. A cross around your neck may let others know whose you are. So does a crucifix. I used to dislike them strongly, but now I realize they are harder to trivialize than an empty cross is. And it’s sometimes hard to tell whether a person wearing a cross is serious or simply making a fashion statement.

Symbols and icons are little signs or pictures that stand for things bigger, often immensely bigger, than themselves. No book is more full of profound symbols that the Bible is. It makes sense that our worship of the God of the Bible, who is God the universe, is full of symbols – perhaps more full than we Reformed folks realize (our faith genes having grown out of  words, not pictures). God is unfathomable and indescribable in human language. So he refers to himself with iconic names and in symbols that echo deep meanings for us: the Cross; Lamb of God; Lion of Judah; I AM, and many others.

The Cross. It is history’s supreme irony – God directed, of course – that the Roman Empire’s instrument of hideous torture should have become the symbol of humankind’s means of freedom, triumph and glory. Christ as Lamb of God is nearly as well known to non-Christians. Many grocery stores still sell butter-shaped lambs at Easter, icons of Christ. In the traditional icon, the Lamb stands or lies, holding an unfurled battle banner between a crooked front leg. On the banner is the cross, which speaks for itself. In other depictions the banner proclaims, Ecce agnus dei: “Behold! the Lamb of God. ”

I was thinking of these things the other night during a performance of Bach’s monumental Mass in B Minor. (I was in the chorus but had time to think when the soloists sang.)  Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was a devout Lutheran whose faith was the center of his life as a composer, organist, husband and father. It bolstered him through his daily composing, through working with uncomprehending church consistories, and through the deaths of his first wife, then the second, and 10 of his 20 children. He understood suffering; and joy.

Bach’s great Mass is neither Lutheran nor Catholic. Its text is the five sections of the ancient mass liturgy in Latin, including the entire Nicene Creed (think: universal language). Bach even imbedded into the musical score numerical symbols for his own name, signifying, “This is what I believe.” The work was highly personal for Bach, but it also fundamentally professes the faith of Christ-believers in all times and places.

That recent performance took place in the Roman Catholic cathedral in St. Catharines. The bishop was in attendance, as well as the local monsignor. I suspect that Bach would have wryly appreciated that, as well as my unexpected discovery.

Facing the audience, we in the chorus could see the whole sanctuary. Attached to the walls between the windows above head level, in three-dimensional sculptures, are the 14 “stations of the cross.” These are biblical scenes of Christ’s journey to Golgotha meant to spur churchgoers to ponder the meaning of those events for us. The “stations” are a fixture in all Catholic churches.

But I suddenly realized there was something unusual about these. Except for the Crucifixion scene itself, behind each sculpture a large wooden cross – a gloriously empty cross – rose against the wall, reaching to well above the top of each sculpture. What a magnificent simultaneous symbol of Christ’s suffering and his exaltation!

Just then the music coincided perfectly. In the music we confessed with the creed, “He died and was buried” (Passus et sepultus est). The musical line drops down, down, sinking into a stricken near-whisper. Christ’s abandonment is aurally graphic, stark. But Bach knew that that is not the end of the story. We assert: “And on the third day he rose again!” (Et resurrexit tertia die). The melody and harmonies leap upward together, trumpets call, kettle drums roll, the tempo dances, the rhythm imitates hearts pounding with excitement. A more exhilarating contrast can hardly be imagined, nor a better way to spend a Lenten evening.
The Reveler

A shortened form of this meditation appeared in Christian Courier, 3/23/09.

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