The Blood of the Lamb
by Michael D. O’Brien
On a Holy Thursday evening, you do not expect to hear gunshots in a quiet country neighborhood. Two great slaps echoed against the face of the hills surrounding our small house. There was no time to give it further thought because the supper hour, the busiest time of day for a family, was upon us.
My wife was setting the Holy Thursday meal on the table. It was a traditional Jewish Seder composed of lamb, herbs, eggs and unleavened bread. The children were clamoring for explanations about the loud concussions when suddenly there were two more shots. Perhaps it was a truck backfiring as it went by on the road, we guessed.
Our children paused a moment as I told them the reason for the strange meal. They became still as I described the angel of death passing over the homes of the Hebrews who had marked their doorposts with the blood of a lamb. The children know that blood is real. They have gazed with surprise at their own blood, which is the merest hint of our mortality. They shuddered as they thought of the slain children of the Egyptians. They wondered why a little thing like a smear of blood on a doorpost, or its absence, could mean life or death.
We ate our meal and shortly after, the youngest ones were put to bed. My eldest son and I went to Holy Thursday Mass and heard the continuation of the ancient story. Now Jesus, the new Lamb, is slain upon the altar of the Cross. It is his blood poured on the lintels of our hearts, which is the sign of the new Passover, the new liberation from slavery. During Mass, I watched the face of my son from time to time. He was very quiet, and obviously trying to digest a difficult thought. I suspected it was the big one: Why is there death in the world?
The scripture readings throughout the Paschal cycle recount the passion and death of the Lord a number of times from various perspectives, but on Holy Thursday night there is special attention paid to the hearts of men. We are sifted like wheat; we are weighed in the balance and found wanting. Like Peter we are at one moment protesting that we will die for the Lord, and the next we are denying him. Or like Judas we are turning away, refusing to believe that forgiveness is possible. In a thousand different ways we flee the confrontation with evil. Once again innocence is left alone to stand before its assailant. It is the feast of darkness, the night of betrayal. Above all it is the moment when absolute despair becomes possible.
At midnight, loud banging on the front door awakened us. A police officer stood there, looking visibly shaken; he apologized for the disturbance and asked to come in. He said that he was investigating a crime and asked if we recalled hearing gunshots. If so, what time had they occurred? We told him about the loud explosions and the approximate time we had heard them. He sank into a chair.
“You understand that I can't tell you what happened,” he said, “but it’s the most terrible thing I’ve ever seen.”
He trembled and I noticed that his holster was unbuttoned, his gun exposed, a pathetic defense against the powers of darkness. We were curiously silent together. A chill and an oppression surrounded us, as if death had become a presence. Then, unable to hold it in, he told us what had happened: A man visiting in an empty house three doors up the street from us had killed his eleven year-old daughter and five-year-old son, then committed suicide.
“It’s very bad,” said the officer. “He used a shotgun and there is nothing left of the faces.”
He left after midnight. It was now Good Friday. Our house was motionless except for the breathing of four sleeping children. My wife and I instinctively went to them, adjusting blankets, laying a hand for a moment on each head. Saying a prayer of thanks that by God's mercy we are a family of hope. It was a strange arid prayer—fearful. Good Friday. It was no longer a memorial liturgy. We lit a candle before the small altar in our living room. It was hard to feel anything except numbness and revulsion and anger! It was the night of the year when evil spreads the illusion that it has triumphed over light. As always, it uses innocent victims to do so. We prayed on into the face of darkness until the east began to turn grey.
Almost a year has gone by. It is impossible not to think of the Holy Thursday murder because we pass by the house every day. It stands like a great and silent blow in our consciousness, an act that leaves a taste of horror in the mouth.
“Why,” we ask. There are a host of obvious reasons — drugs and alcohol were involved. The man's wife had abandoned the family. There were hateful words and bitter scenes, rejection and despair. But the deeper reason continues to challenge and elude us.
Part of the answer lies in the struggle between good and evil that is waged in the center of every human heart. It is perhaps no accident that this man destroyed the faces of his children, and then his own. There are easier and less horrible forms of death. Why this? Whether or not anyone understood it at the time, there was a terrible symbolism enacted here. God's own image was alive in the souls of these innocent victims — and in the soul of the murderer-suicide, for there too the image cannot be destroyed, no matter how deeply buried or mutilated it may be. What this act is about is no less than an insult to the face of God.
Evil is not a substance like poisonous gas. It is an absence of love, and an absence of truth. In this state of exile from God, the spirit named Satan works remorselessly to sabotage the coming of the kingdom. This is part of a much larger battle, a great cosmic argument with God. He attempts to demonstrate to God that love and truth are not efficient ways of ruling the universe. In his pride, he would try to turn the law of freedom topsy-turvy, for it is on the foundation of freedom that all else is built. Only a free soul can choose to love and value truth. Only a free soul can know God and love him. It is freedom that Satan hates above all else, and he works without pity to destroy it — and failing that, to pervert it from its true ends. He entices man on every level of human life to betray his freedom.
Then he tries to force God to defend his creation by violating His own laws, which God will never do. His promise of that is Christ's death and resurrection. The most potent weapon in Satan's permanent rebellion is to ravage and destroy the image of God in God's most beautiful creation: mankind. His devices are many. There is sin and error in forms too numerous to mention here. Primarily, he is master of illusion, and “Father of lies,” as Jesus calls him. His most devastating device is to bring death into the world, then to incite man to rebel against God for permitting death.
Just as effective is the way he violates innocence, for this is what most incites protest from the human heart. What is fatherly and motherly in us recoils from the corruption of what is good and beautiful and true, be it a home, a work of art, or a child's face. We know what it costs to make a human life and in the roots of our being we know that this power to create and nurture connects us to God. When they are violated, somehow God can appear to die a little.
Vast numbers of modern men have come to believe the lie that God is dead and that death is triumphing. As a result of the disintegration of their world, they move about creation hardly knowing how to live. Rootless, wounded and terribly lonely. Despairing, they turn to the drug of materialism and pleasure, or the stimulant of violence, in a desperate flight from an intolerable vision of life. So many people no longer believe in a good God, and have amassed an enormous indictment against him, a case compounded by the crimes of this past century.
Easter Sunday: All appeared normal that morning. Children's swings moved in the wind. Birds sang. Crocus and daffodil pushed up out of the lawn. But all was not normal. The house of murder was terribly silent, its door locked and its windows like blind eyes. I stood before it, holding the hand of my son, wondering, “Where was God at Auschwitz?” And quietly, as if in answer, there came another question: “Where was man?”
“What of these murdered children,” I asked of the silence. “Where can they be now?”
I saw their faces before me suddenly, faces which had been created to grow brighter and brighter as they turned into the image that we reflect. Faces designed from eternity to burst forth with laughter, song, and glances of love, cast now into the darkness of a tomb. Why? It was a moment of choice for me, the choice made by every person who encounters a cross. As we stood before that empty house on Easter Sunday morning, my son and I prayed. We asked God to accept the souls of these victims who had been nailed to the Cross with his Son.
In my heart I heard a voice speaking, much deeper than words, louder than the report of a gun, stronger than all the noise of a violent age: “These innocent ones are with me.”
They are with him on the Cross; they are with him this day in Paradise. And soon, he promises, he will return in glory. Soon, he promises, death itself, along with Satan, will be cast forever into a lake of fire.
We stood a while longer, listening, then turned and walked down the road, searching for an empty tomb.
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This article originally appeared in Our Family magazine in the mid 1980's.