Animal sacrifice is all through the Bible. It was the practice laid out by God for His people in the Old Testament to atone for their sins and seek God's forgiveness. For people whose livelihood depended on raising livestock for food, milk, offspring, pelts, etc., to give up one of their animals for this ritual -- in fact, the most perfect ones -- was really a sacrifice for them in terms of losing all that the animal provided them to live. It wasn't just a symbolic act.
Yet, when Jesus came -- God Himself in the form of a man -- and walked among us, He made the ultimate sacrifice of His very life for us so that never again would humankind need to kill animals to repent of our sins. Jesus' sacrifice was for all of us, for all time. That is why throughout the New Testament, He is often referred to as The Lamb.
For those of us in the West who mostly eat meat that we've purchased pre-cut and packaged at a grocery store, it's hard to understand what it really means that we consume living creatures for our own well-being.
I have spent the past week in a country in Central Asia where it is still a common practice at special occasions for someone to give up one of his lambs for a family or village feast. Often the men will gather around the animal and pray over it before the slaughter. All are expected to stand and watch the moment of the animal's death, in respect for its sacrifice. Then, the men and women participate in skinning the animal, removing its organs and cooking the meat slowly for several hours in a wood-fired covered bowl or pit. When it is finished, everyone sits on the floor and eats the meat and broth mixed with rice, along with other special foods.
The eldest or most honored man takes the head of the lamb and removes parts of the head and gifts them to people, explaining how this part of the animal symbolizes a character trait and wishing for that person to experience this trait. For instance, if the man gives the ear to a boy, he might say that he wishes the boy to have good ears to listen to his parents. Or if he gives the lip of the lamb to a young woman, he might say that he wishes all her words to be gentle and kind.
"Anna", the national leader of the Nazarenes in her country, explained to me that many people here believe Jesus is an American or a Russian god. They view our faith as something foreign that doesn't belong in their culture and traditions. So, Anna has found ways to see the Christian meanings within her people's cultural practices, and to incorporate those cultural practices into the life of the believers. The feast of the lamb is one of those practices.
I came to this country with a group of university students, as part of a media team, to gather testimonies to share with our global church, and to encourage the believers. We had the honor to witness this sacrifice of the lamb during a feast ceremony with the believers here in Central Asia this week. It was beautiful to see how the group related the slaughter of the animal to the death of Jesus for our sins, and used the feast as an opportunity to celebrate and remember what Jesus has done for us. It was also interesting to see how they related the gifting of the parts of the head in terms of fruits of the Spirit that they wished for the young people and children present.
Although it was hard to witness the death of a living animal, our group felt incredibly honored and privileged that the believers here would share their cultural practice with us, and that together, although we speak different languages, we could all celebrate the sacrifice of the Lamb and the freedom we now know in Jesus.