January 15, 2017
+ A few weeks ago, our Senior Warden, Cathy McMullen and Michael McMullen gave me a wonderful Birthday/Christmas/Epiphany gift, a biography of the infamous Russian religious figure, Rasputin. I love the book! It was a fascinating book about Rasputin and the fall of the Romanov dynasty.
But surprisingly, what I found truly interesting was some of the back history about religious life in Russia before the Revolution. And I soon found myself exploring, on my own, some of those religious expressions, namely a branch of Russian Orthodoxy called hesychasm. Hesychasm was—and is—a mystical ascetical expression of the Orthodox Church that was prevalent in Russia right up to the Revolution one hundred years ago.
As I read some articles and historical accounts I found myself going down a kind of rabbit hole. I’m sure some of you history buffs do this on occasion. You find yourself going down side stories and interesting tidbits that go hither and yon.
Somehow, my rabbit hole led from Rasputin to hesychasm to a fascinating view in orthodoxy regarding the Lamb of God. Namely, the fact that, in the Orthodox Church, they do not allow any representations of the Lamb of God. Yes, there is Jesus in his human form, of course, depicted in icons. But they do not allow any representations of Jesus as the Lamb of God. Which shocked me. (I already sort of knew this about Orthodoxy, but never really have it a second thought).
So, my rabbit hole got deeper as I tried to find out why. Which led me to the Council of Trullo. The Council of Trullo was held in 692, I’m not going to go into all the controversies that were going on the Eastern church at the time. I invite you to go and explore them—they’re fascinating if you’re into all those things. But I will share what the Council of Trullo ultimately decided about the Lamb of God. Its 82nd canon declared:
In certain reproductions of venerable images, the precursor is pictured indicating the lamb with his finger. This representation was adopted as a symbol of grace. It is a hidden figure of that true lamb who is Christ, our God, and shown to us according to the Law. Having thus welcomed these ancient figures and shadows as symbols of the truth transmitted to the Church, we prefer today grace and truth themselves as a fulfillment of this law. Therefore, in order to expose to the sight of all that which is perfect, at least with the help of painting, we decree that henceforth Christ our God must be represented in His human form but not in the form of the ancient lamb.
In other words, they didn’t want people to think that Christ was really an actual lamb, with fleece and hoofs. Sort of like the lamb we find on today’s bulletin. It was only a description of him. And, as such, should not be represented in art and icons.
All of this, of course, hits home to me this week because our Gospel reading for today deals with Christ as the Lamb of God. And for some reason, this past week, as I was meditating on our Gospel reading for today, the whole image of Jesus as the Lamb of God really hit home to me in a new way.
In today’s Gospel reading we find John the Baptist calling out not once but twice, identifying Jesus as the Lamb of God. Now, we can kind of see where those bishops of Trullo are coming from. For us, it’s a very nice image. A nice fluffy, sweet-natured lamb.
But…is that the right image we have of Jesus? If God chose to be incarnate in the flesh, would God want to be looked upon as a sweet, fluffy lamb? No, not all. And that’s not what John is getting at when we calls out the way he does. Sweet and gentle is not what John saw when he observed Jesus as the Lamb of God. For John, what he observed when he looked at Jesus and saw the Lamb of God walking past, was truly a thing that would most vegans cringe:
he saw that sacrifice that was seen in the Temple in Jerusalem.
There, the lamb was sacrificed—and quite violently sacrificed—as a sin offering for the people. He saw before him not Jesus the man, but the sacrificial Lamb, broken and bleeding.
To be fair, in our own images of the Lamb of God, we don’t always have just a fluffy little lamb. In our images of the lamb, if you look at them closely, we see the Lamb pierced. We see blood pouring from the side of the Lamb. We see a sacrificed Lamb.
In our Sunday Mass, we sing the Agnes Dei—the Lamb of God—after I have broken the bread. I am so happy that we do. This “fraction anthem” as we call it, carries such meaning. In it we sing:
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.
Then you see me hold up the chalice and that broken bread and you hear me say,
“This is the Lamb of God. This is the One who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are we who are called to this supper.”
This shed blood. This broken body. This sacrifice. That is what we hold up.
I cannot tell you how many times I have stood at this altar during that anthem and looked down at the broken bread on that paten and looked into that cup and had a moment of real spiritual clarity. So many times I have looked at the broken bread and the cup and thought, this is Jesus. This is the Lamb of God.
For me, that moment of spiritual clarity is very much like the moment John announces Jesus as the Lamb. For me, it might as well be the Baptist’s voice in my ear, announcing to me that this is the One. And it should be for all of us. The hesychasts of pre-revolutionary Russia would be proud with such a revelation.
But more than just some mystical experience is this concept of the Lamb being broken.
Why do we break the bread at the Eucharist? Why do I, when I hold up that broken bread with the chalice, say, “This is the Lamb of God. This is the One who takes away the sins of the world…”?
Yes, we do it to symbolize the broken body of the Lamb. The Lamb was broken. The Lamb was sacrificed. And it is importance to recognize that. Trust me, we understand brokenness right now in our world, in our society, and, no doubt, many of us know it in our lives. Brokenness is part of this imperfect world in which we live. And it is hard to bear. When we gaze upon that broken bread, when we gaze upon that broken lamb, we gaze upon our own brokenness as well. But we gaze upon a God who understands our brokenness. A God who understands these fractures and these pains each us bear within us and in this world in which we live.
But it symbolizes something even more practical. We break bread, so we can share it. We don’t get the option of just sitting around, wallowing in our brokenness. We don’t get to just close up and rock back and forth in pain over the unfairness of this world and society and our lives. We are called to go out and do something about it. We break this bread and then break it and then break it again until it becomes small pieces that we must share with one another. By sharing our God who knows brokenness, by sharing of our broken selves, we do something meaningful. We undo our brokenness. We become whole by sharing our brokenness.
It means we take what we have eaten here—this Lamb, this Christ, this God who knew pain and suffering and death—and we share this Christ with others, through our love, through our actions of love, through our acceptance of all people in love.
It is not enough that we simply recognize the broken Lamb. We must recognize the Lamb, broken for us, so that we then can share the Lamb with others. And that is the purpose of our lives as Christians.
Yes, we gather here and are Christians. But we are also gathered here so we can go out and share this Lamb that has been broken and given to us. And in sharing the Lamb, others too can share the Lamb.
So, let us listen to the voice of the Baptist proclaiming in our ears, “Behold the Lamb of God!” Let us hear that voice when I hold up the Bread and the Chalice. Let us hear that voice as we come forward to share that bread and drink from that chalice.
But let us be that voice when we leave here. Let us proclaim the Lamb of God as we share Christ with others, in all that we do as Christians, in the differences we make in this world around, in all the good we do and say in our lives. When we do that we will find ourselves, as we heard in the beautiful collect from this morning, “illuminated by [God’s] Word and Sacraments.” And being illuminated, we will “shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshipped and obeyed to the ends of the earth.”