Adoration of the Shepherds (1622) by Gerard (Gerrit) van Honthorst.
AT OUR CHURCH at Christmas we have a crèche. It starts out as a big empty barn. Gradually over the weeks of Advent it begins to fill up with hay, a manger, a cow – all hand knit by parish members and neighbourhood friends – as each Sunday a child carries another animal in procession to Bethlehem. Last of the animals to arrive are the sheep: three woolly white lambs (miracles of knitting to my non-knitter’s eye) looking frisky and innocent, entirely unaware of the mystery that is about to unfold in their midst. These lambs, cradled this Advent in the child’s eager hands, frolicking at Christmas about the manger, are pointers to something of the depth of the grace that visits us in the child born at Bethlehem.
For he will be the lamb.
In his innocence, first, he will be the lamb, this Child born to Mary, innocent not only as babies are innocent, not yet having done any harm. He will be the lamb who is innocent as the Son of God is innocent: in Spirit and in truth, doing no harm all the days of his life.
The lambs with their shepherds are part of Luke’s lovely Christmas story. But Matthew makes the same point. Three times in the Passion Narrative he calls Jesus “innocent.” “I have sinned; I have betrayed innocent blood,” Judas says to the chief priests after Jesus is condemned. “Have nothing to do with this innocent man,” Pilate’s wife pleads with Pilate. And when Pilate decides to crucify Jesus anyway, he washes his hands. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he says, in an attempt to save himself from responsibility for the wrongful execution of an innocent man. Jesus is the spotless lamb in 1 Peter, dying as an innocent man, as the one innocent man, for the sake of all the far-from-innocent people.
Not with perishable things, 1 Peter says, were you ransomed, not with silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ as of a lamb spotless and unblemished. Here is the second thing to which the lambs at the manger point: the spotless Lamb who loves us and gives his life to save us.
Why is a ransom necessary? Because we are sold under sin, because we find ourselves so far from the innocence for which we long, because we harm and destroy on God’s holy mountain. Because we like sheep have gone astray. We are lost and no longer hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. Here, too, the lamb speaks to us at Christmas, this time not of Jesus but of ourselves.
We are the lamb who is lost. This is the third meaning of the lamb. Advent, indeed, is a time to take stock of just how far we have wandered, our distance from innocence – the impossibility, it seems, of walking in the way we know to be good. “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do,” Paul says. “Who will save me from the body of this death?”(Romans 7:19, 24). And hard on the heels of his cry comes the answer: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
The lamb is a sign of hope, when we are the sheep that wander. For Jesus is the shepherd who leaves everything behind to go after the lamb who is lost. Jesus is the shepherd who faces the night to find his lamb, and lifts her up on his shoulders and carries her home rejoicing. On his shoulders Jesus lifts us all up, in his innocence bearing our shame, on his cross lifting us in his outstretched arms into heaven.
Jesus is the lamb who dies so that he might bring us all back home, so that we might in our lost and longing hearts know again God’s peace. He is the lamb whose death is our hope, the promise of restoration, God’s creatures living again in the innocence that does no harm.
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them…
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6-9)
This is the fourth meaning of the lamb: now in this Child the glimpse of a far horizon, the time of Isaiah’s promise, hope of a world healed, the reign of grace.
Lamb of God, spotless one, sacrifice and shepherd, lifting the world in thy love into the place of God’s peace. Lamb of God, restoring to the lost world its innocence. The lamb at the manger this Christmas speaks the whole great story of grace: the Child and the cross and the victory of God, the cost of our wandering and the love that comes to find us there. The Lamb is the one who lifts us up on his own suffering shoulders and gives this world finally God’s peace.
O Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. Grant us this Christmas thy peace. TAP
Dr. Catherine Sider Hamilton is the Rector of St Matthew’s Anglican Church in Riverdale, Toronto.