Right at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories, there’s an extraordinary passage, rich in spiritual insight. Having sailed further than anyone before, the characters in the story have reached the edge of the world, and are on the border with ‘Aslan’s Country’ (an allegory of heaven). There, in this strange, liminal space, they meet a little lamb on a beach, a lamb ‘so white they could hardly look at it’. The lamb addresses the children ‘in its sweet milky voice’, and while Edmund and Lucy dialogue with him, a transformation takes place: ‘As [the Lamb] spoke, his snowy white flushed into tawny gold and his size changed and he was Aslan himself, towering above them and scattering light from his mane’. Aslan the Lion, who of course represents Jesus Christ, had been showing himself to the children in the form of a Lamb.
If you’re familiar with the Book of Revelation, this Narnian scene might ring a few bells. In Chapter 5 of that book, John is shown a scroll sealed with seven seals which no-one can open. John weeps because the scroll cannot be opened, but is then told: ‘Weep not; behold the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals’. But when John looks up to see this great Lion, he sees instead ‘a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain’. The Lion of Judah is none other than the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ.
This scene from Revelation is essential to understanding the nature of Jesus Christ and his saving work, represented so clearly for us in the apparition at Knock. John is expecting to see a great strong beast who will tear the seals from the scroll, but is shown instead a slain little lamb, the very epitome of weakness, who is nevertheless ‘worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals’.
This gets to the heart of Christ’s saving work. Jesus Christ was true God, he created the entire universe, and holds it all in being, yet he came among us as a defenceless child, as a simple carpenter’s son, as one who weeps, is hungry, is rejected, and finally as one who suffers and dies on the Cross. At any point in his earthly life, he could have shown his omnipotence and vanquished all his assailants, but he deliberately chooses not to: the great Lion of the tribe of Judah shows himself as a slain Lamb.
And yet, in this deliberately chosen weakness lies the invincible strength of Christ’s work for our salvation. It is by means of his suffering and death that he saves us from our sins. The slain Lamb rises, victorious over death, scattering light on those who approach him, opening up the way to salvation. The Lamb of God is not a frolicking pet; He is powerful enough to ‘take away the sins of the world’. He is, as we love to sing in Knock, the Lamb who conquers.
What does all this mean for us? If the Lamb who appeared in Knock all those years ago is also the Lion of Judah, if his meek sweetness is allied to iron strength, how should we seek to follow him? How should we imitate his curious mix of weakness and strength?
There are many in the contemporary world, and especially in contemporary Ireland, who relish the idea of a weak Church. Some point to a time in the past when the Church had too much worldly power, and propose that the time is ripe for humility on the part of the Church. Others go further and suggest that the Church should have little to no role in official Ireland: no schools, no universities, no hospitals, no influence in public life. Christianity is thereby nicely neutered, and becomes so meek and mild as to be easily ignored. Strangely, this attitude is not just prevalent among those outside the fold, but also among many followers of Christ who are, perhaps, keen to avoid conflict.
There are others, far less numerous, who hope the Church will return to worldly power. Especially in the face of the rise of Islam, one hears murmurings of ‘new crusades’ and ‘muscular Christianity’. Strongman politicians in both east and west make gushing promises about the return of the Church to the corridors of power. What the Church needs, according to this approach, is more money, more buildings, greater manpower, and a new boldness.
Each of these approaches falls short of what it means to follow the Lamb-who-is-Lion, and each is boringly predictable. One is all Lamb and no Lion, the other is all Lion and no Lamb. To follow Christ authentically means being willing to be weak even when strength is an option, and being willing to be strong even when weakness is attractive. Christ is not ‘tame’, he is not domesticated or predictable, he does not fit into our worldly or political categories, and neither should his followers.
In our own times, perhaps the greatest example of such a follower was St Teresa of Calcutta, who visited this shrine in 1993. Think of how she deliberately chose weakness by responding to her ‘call within a call’: God’s invitation to leave the solid structures of the Loreto Sisters and serve the poorest of the poor by living among them. Here is the lamb who was slain. And yet, what a lion she was when she received her Nobel Peace Prize, shocking her bien pensant audience with her ringing denunciation of the violence of abortion.
Following the Lamb, in other words, being a Christian, is not something we can plan ahead of time. We can’t always know in advance when to be defiant in the face of injustice, and when to suffer it meekly, when to denounce wrongdoing, and when to tolerate it, when to preach the Gospel with words, and when to demonstrate it in silent actions. As followers of the Lamb-who-is-Lion we are called, not to predictable security, but to adventure. This adventure can be unsettling, but He is with us.
Together with all the living creatures and elders and angels of the Book of Revelation, let’s take this day in Knock as an opportunity to kneel before the Lamb and to say: ‘Lord, I let go of my own plans and projects, of my limited ideas and tame dreams. I let go of all these things and I choose to follow You, the Lamb who was slain, the Lion of Judah’.
Fr. Conor B. McDonough. O.P.