The Bones of the Lamb

At a recent class on the Eucharist for our adult catechumens, I was teaching about the typological symbolism of the Paschal lamb. Like the sacrificial victim of the Passover, carefully chosen from among the flocks in accord with the Lord’s ritual commandments, Jesus is the true “lamb without blemish, a male” (Ex 12:5), who is sacrificed “in the evening” (v. 6) before the Sabbath, and whose “blood shall be a sign” (v. 13) marking those who are saved: “[God] shall see the blood … and not suffer the destroyer to come into your houses and to hurt you” (v. 23).

Significantly, the lamb was not only sacrificed, but totally consumed: “They shall eat the flesh that night roasted at the fire, and unleavened bread,” the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron. “Neither shall there remain any thing of it until morning. If there be any thing left, you shall burn it with fire” (vv. 8, 10).

This mitzvah of “the Passover of the Lord” (v. 11) is fulfilled at the Lord’s Last Supper, his final celebration of the Passover with his twelve most intimate friends, during which “our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet ‘in which Christ is consumed”” (CCC 1323, emphasis added; cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, 47).

The Eucharist, then, is the Paschal banquet of the New Covenant, in which Christ himself becomes our food! In place of the lamb of old, there is the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, whose flesh and blood becomes “true food and true drink” (John 6:56) for us. As that lamb was roasted whole (cf. Ex 12:9), a prefiguration of the whole burnt offerings which the Lord would later command His people to offer Him upon the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem, so the Lord becomes a ‘holocaust-offering of love’ to the Father at Calvary, a ‘whole burnt offering’ in which He gives all that He has and is, holding nothing in remainder: “Jesus crying with a loud voice, said: Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit. And saying this, he gave up the ghost” (Luke 23:46).

As we were exploring this rich symbolism and its fulfillment in Christ, one student asked: “What about the bones of the lamb?” Since the lamb had to be eaten whole, he wondered whether the Jews were commanded to break open its bones and eat the marrow, and what significance this might hold for us.

In fact, the Lord explicitly forbids the breaking of the bones of the sacrificial lamb: “In one house shall it be eaten, neither shall you carry forth of the flesh thereof out of the house, neither shall you break a bone thereof” (Exodus 12:46). This becomes another significant prefiguration of the Lord which is fulfilled in St. John’s account of the Passion: “The Jews … besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. The soldiers therefore came; and they broke the legs of the first, and of the other that was crucified with him. But after they were come to Jesus, when they saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs” (John 19:31-33).

But why the prohibition? The rabbinical commentaries on this mitzvah give us some insight. The Hebrew word עצם (‛étsem, cf. BDB, 6292), translated ‘bone’ in the Exodus quotation given above, also bears the related meanings of ‘essence’ or ‘substance.’ It refers to the irreducible core of something, the sine qua non. (The bodily analogy is clear enough; after all, without bones, you wouldn’t have much of a body!)

According to the commentary of Rabbi Maimonides, as interpreted by the Orthodox Congregation B’nai Avraham in New York City:

The essence and core of a Jew is his or her emunah, faith in G-d. On the first Pesach, the Jewish people were endowed with perfect faith. Each Pesach, the strength of our faith is renewed … Therefore, the Torah tells us that we cannot break the bone, the etzem, of the Pascal offering – not only that we may not, but that we cannot, that the faith of a Jew can never truly be broken because it is our very core.

“Don’t Break Any Bones: The Deeper Meaning to the Paschal Offering” (Brooklyn, NY: Congregation B’nai Avraham, 2015)

If, as Maimonides suggests, the mystical meaning of the unbroken bones of the lamb is the unbroken faith of the people of Israel in the covenant with the Lord, then this too is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus, High Priest and Victim of the New Covenant (cf. Hebrews 3:1). The people of Israel, after all, were by and large unfaithful to the covenant promises. “They offered sacrifice upon the tops of the mountains, and burnt incense upon the hills: under the oak, and the poplar, and the turpentine tree” (Hosea 4:13).

Jesus alone, the New Israel Incarnate, remains faithful to his final breath, taking upon himself the people’s self-imposed separation and estrangement from God—the principal and most awful consequence of sin—and making atonement for all by his perfect, loving, filial fidelity to the Father.

His cry from the depths, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 14:34), as Pope Benedict XVI writes,

is no ordinary cry of abandonment. Jesus is praying the great psalm of suffering Israel, and so he is taking upon himself all the tribulations, not just of Israel, but of all those in this world who suffer from God’s concealment. He brings the world’s anguished cry at God’s absence before the heart of God himself. He identifies himself with all who suffer ‘under God’s darkness’; He takes their cry, their anguish upon himself – and in so doing transforms it.”

Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 2, 214

How does he transform it? In the words of my dear professor of Trinitarian theology, Dr. Margaret Turek, “sin is ‘borne away’ in being transformed or converted into its opposite. If sin is to be transformed into its opposite, then that which is the opposite of sin – filial love for God – must enter into and bear sin away.”1 This ‘filial love,’ by the way, is the very substance of the Son of God: loving confidence, trust, and obedience in the Father.

Therefore, to quote another great scholar of the atonement, Fr. Norbert Hoffmann:

“The crucified Son … occupies the ‘place of sinners’ and allows God to be ‘Father’ there … as he stands in their sinful estrangement from the Father and endures it … Here sin is fashioned as in a furnace until all that is left is the Son’s [heartache], that is, that form of love-suffering that is the exact opposite of sinful rebellion, that converts and nullifies it.”

Hoffmann, “Atonement and the Spirituality of the Sacred Heart,” in Faith in Christ and the Worship of Christ (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 170

What does it mean for us that Jesus’ bones, his substance, was unbroken to the end? It means that his faith in the Father was unshaken, and that his filial love-suffering, by which He atoned for our sin and achieved our salvation, was a truly commensurate offering to atone for the sin of the world.


Footnotes

  1. Margaret Turek, “Atonement: Soundings in Biblical, Trinitarian, and Spiritual Theology,” draft copy (Menlo Park, CA: St. Patrick’s Seminary & University, 2019), 31.

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