On their honeymoon, my parents went hiking in the Himalayan mountains. They were already in India, as young missionaries. So, long before treks like the Annapurna circuit became popular with western hikers, they set up their own trek through the peaks and meadows of the Kulu Valley.
Their route began in Hindu territory. Hindus do not eat meat. Closer to Kashmir, they moved into Muslim territory. Muslims do eat meat.
After many meatless meals, my parents hungered for meat.
“I can get meat at the local market,” their guide assured them. “What would you like?”
“Some lamb would be lovely,” my mother gushed.
A little later, they heard a commotion outside their guesthouse. There stood their guide. With a local farmer, holding a very large knife in one hand. A string in the other hand led to a lamb, frolicking happily on the meadow.
“You wanted lamb,” said the guide. “Which part would you like?”
They didn’t have lamb that night after all.
I doubt if most of us would eat meat if we had to sacrifice the animal ourselves. Or even watch it being sacrificed. So I’ve never understood why Christians so blithely refer to Jesus as the “Lamb of God,” especially during this Easter season.
Yes, I know, the Bible uses that term. It comes to us on good authority. But in biblical times, animal sacrifice was taken for granted. Everyone who came to the Temple in Jerusalem was expected to offer some kind of creature for sacrifice. The outer court of the Temple became a shopping mall for suitable victims.
Mosaic law required the sacrifice of at least two lambs every day in the Temple. By some accounts, the priest performing sacrificial rites on high holy days sometimes stood up to his ankles in a river of blood.
Still, sacrificing animals was a step up the moral ladder from sacrificing humans. In his dotage, Abraham thought that God wanted him to sacrifice his son Isaac, the way other peoples did. The book of Genesis says that God intervened at the last minute to provide a wild goat for the sacrifice instead. From then on, Abraham’s descendants sacrificed only animals—and birds—instead of humans.
Lambs had special significance for Jews, of course. At the first Passover, while they were still slaves in Egypt, God ordered them to sacrifice an “unblemished” lamb and feast on it, to prepare themselves for their escape into the desert. By smearing the blood of the sacrificial lamb on their doorposts, they could warn death to “pass over” that dwelling, while destroying the first-born in every Egyptian household.
For the early Christian church, the symbolism was irresistible. It couldn’t help treating Jesus, crucified during the Passover period, as the innocent lamb, sacrificed so that others need not die.
But the symbolism is now grossly outdated. We no longer sacrifice a bull on Bay Street to ensure prosperity, or fling chicken entrails on an airport runway to promote safety. Most of us would, like my mother, forego meat rather than needlessly slaughter a lamb.
Yet I’m sure that countless Christians will hear sermons this week, praising a practice that is now both foreign and repugnant. Why?