In the winter of 1977, a tragedy was painfully and painstakingly unfurled in the Monroe County, New York courtroom of Judge Hyman Maas. Eleven months earlier, on April 27, 1976, a Roman Catholic nun and school teacher, Sister Maureen Murphy, surreptitiously gave birth to a baby boy at the Our Lady of Lourdes parish convent in Brighton, just outside Rochester. It was alleged that she then shoved a pair of panties into the infant’s mouth, asphyxiating him, and left his remains in a wastebasket.
After the body was found, the 36-year-old member of the Sisters of St. Joseph was questioned, but she denied ever being pregnant. Medical examiners at nearby Genesee Hospital concluded that she had, in fact, recently delivered a baby, and had apparently managed to conceal the pregnancy under a traditional nun’s habit, but Sister Maureen claimed she did not remember it. She was charged with first- and second-degree manslaughter along with criminally negligent homicide.
It was a high profile case. Ms. magazine dispatched Catherine Breslin to cover the trial, which lasted ten days. The fact that Sister Maureen had waived her right to a jury trial only served to heighten the courtroom drama. Even in the supposedly enlightened days of the late 1970s, some questioned out loud whether a Catholic nun could expect to receive a fair trial from a Jewish judge.
On March 5, newspapers around the country carried United Press International’s account of the judge’s verdict. The defense had conceded that Sister Maureen committed the act, but had also argued that blood loss during childbirth along with the overall trauma of the experience had impaired her judgment, that she may not even have been fully conscious during the episode, and that she had not actually meant to kill the baby. Judge Maas agreed and found her not guilty on all counts (see “Nun cleared of charges in son’s death,” The Bryan Times, Bryan, OH, March 5, 1977, 10).
A story, thrice told
The plotline was apparently too good to allow it to remain simply a work of journalism. Breslin, a lapsed Catholic who had been raised in a convent, decided to turn it into a book. But given the risk of libel in a case in which the defendant had been exonerated, it seemed prudent to transform Sister Maureen Murphy into Sister Angela Flynn, and to make her a character in a novel titled Unholy Child (New York: The Dial Press, 1979; see “Nun’s Story Becomes a Novel,” New York Magazine, July 30, 1979, 9)—and a rather tedious one according to C. Dennis Moore who recently reviewed it for SFReader.com, although he was apparently unaware that it was based on a true story.
In the book, Breslin gives herself the opportunity, through the persona of newspaper reporter Meg Gavin, to vent about the church’s attitudes toward sex. Surely it must have been this oppression that caused Sister Angela (a name that bespeaks her innocence) to do the things she did. Although the prolix (501-page) novel did not exactly electrify the reading public, the premise that Sister Maureen’s story was not so much about what she did but about what someone did to her was beginning to take on a life of its own.
In the hands of playwright and screenwriter John Pielmeier, who received his undergraduate degree at the Catholic University of America, Sister Maureen soon received another makeover. Instead of Sister Angela, she would now be Sister Agnes.
Pielmeier obviously knew what he was doing by choosing this name. Anyone as familiar with the Latin mass as he and Breslin and Sister Maureen and many others still were in 1982 when his play was produced on Broadway would not have missed the allusion. As someone raised mostly in the post-Vatican II Catholic church and who barely remembers the Latin rite I did not miss it when I learned of the 1985 film version of starring Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, and Meg Tilly as Sister Agnes, which was nominated for three Oscars and won Tilly a Golden Globe.
Just in time for the great exaltation of victimhood that our culture promoted in the mid-1980s—the project of making victim status the ultimate hermeneutical key for understanding all our personal and social ills—Pielmeier had transformed the character who had begun as presumably a victim of her own memory disorder, and then became a victim of the church, into a kind of ultimate victim, a victim of the darkest secrets of society. Instead of an otherwise normal and well-balanced individual who had been a nun for many years (Sister Maureen), or someone suffering from a mental pathology (Sister Angela), she was now a young, French-speaking novitiate with a long history of having been abused, with her most recent abuser being responsible for her current predicament. She seems more a child than a woman, apparently so naïve that it is easier for her Mother Superior to believe that a virgin conception had taken place in her convent than that she had been with a man. So, in keeping with the spirit of the times, instead of a news reporter she is assigned a psychiatrist, Dr. Martha Livingston (played by Jane Fonda in the movie).
She is now Sister Agnes. And as if to both underscore his point and put an exclamation mark after it, Pielmeier titles his play and screenplay in such a way as to remove all ambiguity from his intended reference to the ultimate victim. He names it, Agnes of God.
Christian worship services around the world regularly echo with the declaration of John the Baptist: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29, NASB). In some services this verse is quoted as a regular part of the Lord’s Supper, or communion service. At other times it may be part of an evangelist’s call to unbelievers in his audience to trust Christ for salvation.
One can only speculate as to the immediate reaction of those who first heard it from the lips of John as he pointed out the peasant frame of Jesus of Nazareth to them. Where they not preparing for their king? Why should they stop to consider a lamb?
In the grand sweep of biblical narrative, it is a declaration both simple and profound—simultaneously concealing and revealing in language that is both cryptic and commonplace. Did anyone who heard it that day try to consider its ramifications? If the Messiah was to be a lamb, that meant he was to be a sacrifice—specifically, a sacrificial victim. Anyone who lived anywhere near an altar, either Jewish or pagan, would have understood that. They would have also understood that all such sacrifices were, without exception, designed to appease or propitiate (Greek: ἱλάσκομαι; hilaskomai) an offended deity.
In the nearly two millennia since Jesus fulfilled those words, many Christians have come to take both their meaning and all their abundant symbolism and subtext for granted. In the Greek of the New Testament, “Lamb of God” was ἀμνὸς τοῦ θεοῦ (amnos tou theou), but the church spread quickly after the Day of Pentecost, and very soon there were Christians who spoke Latin, and for them the “Lamb of God” was the Agnus Dei, a phrase that the title Agnes of God is obviously designed to evoke. In Latin Bibles, John’s statement would read, “Ecce agnus Dei qui tollit peccatum mundi” (John 1:29, Vulgate).
In Pelmeier’s adaptation of the story, Sister Agnes is the lamb who pays for the sins of others, without, however, actually taking them away. At best, the guilt and the stains of the sins committed against her are left unresolved. At the core of the movie is not the sin of someone who sins against the church and her own baby, but the innocence of a victim.
It’s highly plausible to assume that Pelmeier also knew of St. Agnes of Rome, and that although her name is derived from the Greek word ἁγνός (hagnos) meaning “pure” (and related to ἅγιος, hagios, meaning “holy”), instead of the Latin word agnus, she is nevertheless symbolized by a lamb (two of them are solemnly blessed on her feast day), and is considered a patron saint of both virgins and rape victims. What better name to encapsulate the celebration of victimhood that became one of the “spiritual laws” of the gospel of therapy?
Christ and Culture
The high tide of Christianity’s influence on society began receding long ago, but the winds of change have yet to totally remove its imprint from the beaches of Western culture. What people do with those imprints depends on their agenda. The more educated among us know what they used to mean to society at large; many are eager for them to mean something else.
Some think nothing of hijacking Christian words and symbols like so many Boeing jets to be flown into the edifices of Christian doctrines in the hope of razing them to the ground. In this category belong accusations of those who find the biblical teaching that God, out of love for sinners, sent His Son as a sacrificial lamb to atone for our guilt as little more than “a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed” (as Steve Chalke does in The Lost Message of Jesus [Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Zondervan, 2003], 182).
A more subtle, subversive, and perhaps more successful strategy is found in plays and movies like Agnes of God, which seek to empty Christian words and symbols of all biblical significance and enlist them in the service of non-Christian worldviews. The highest point Christ Himself is allowed to occupy by the creators of these works is that of an example to be followed. He is no longer a Savior from the penalty of sin, let alone Lord of the universe, and in most cases He is relegated to the lowly role of mystical, ineffable, undefined symbol while the cross is reduced to a mere artistic motif.
As Simon the Sorcerer sought to purchase the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit from Peter (Acts 8:9-24), the high priests of contemporary culture seek to channel the spiritual and cultural power of terms like “Lamb of God” into their own messages, severing them from their true redemptive context. But the ranks of those who have eroded and even sabotaged the real meaning of Christ’s work on the cross are not occupied solely by cultural élites. Sadly, many who have called themselves Christians have contributed substantially to the damage.
Sacrificing the Lamb
Down through the centuries since he first uttered it, John the Baptist’s declaration has inspired countless sermons, hymns, works of art, and scholarly treatises. And yet slowly, over many centuries, a trend emerged of people trying to draw near to Christ and His cross while at the same time pulling away from and neglecting the Scriptures where He is to be found (John 5:39).
Some pulled away not out of neglect, but out of revulsion. They did not want the Christ they found in Scripture, the Christ of blood sacrifice, Who bore the curse of sin for His people. They wanted to draw near to God through a Christ who seemed better suited to their refined sensibilities.
But whether it was through neglect or revulsion, as the original apostolic preaching of the cross became more and more polluted with false concepts and misunderstandings, the cross on which the Lamb of God was wounded for our transgressions so that we could draw near to God seemed to begin actually putting more and more distance between Him and His people.
Late in the 7th century, Pope Sergius I introduced the Agnus Dei into the Latin mass.
qui tollis peccata mundi,
qui sedes ad dexteram patris,
qui tollis peccata mundi,
dona nobis pacem.
Lamb of God,
who takes away the sins of the world,
have mercy on us.
Lamb of God,
who sits at the right hand of the Father,
have mercy on us.
Lamb of God,
who takes away the sins of the world,
grant us peace.
The form was modified around the end of the 10th century so that the first sentence was repeated twice followed by the third sentence from the original.
I grant that it’s possible to pray these words with a proper understanding, perhaps making them acceptable for use in worship. But the clauses miserere nobis (“have mercy upon us”) and dona nobis pacem (“grant us peace”) were not in John the Baptist’s original Agnus Dei, and without proper qualification they can lead to considerable misunderstanding.
It’s true that we find the first of these in the gospels. A Canaanite woman beseeched Jesus, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David,” (Matthew 15:22, ESV), and blind Bartimaeus cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” when he heard that He was walking by (Mark 10:46-48, ESV). And later the apostles included mercy in the blessings they wished upon their readers (e.g., 1 Timothy 1:2; 2 John 1:3; Jude 2). But after Christ’s resurrection, the emphasis in Scripture is no longer on begging Christ for His mercy—we do not find a single instance of it in Acts, the epistles, or Revelation—but on the mercy that Christ has now guaranteed for believers. While it certainly remains appropriate to ask God for individual “mercies,” such as our daily bread and physical health, it is emphatically not appropriate for believers to beg “God, [who is] rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us,” for the mercy of eternal salvation which He has already promised those who trust Him, since it is “by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4-5, ESV; emphasis is mine).
As for the request, “grant us peace,” it should suffice to remind ourselves of Paul’s words, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1, ESV; emphasis, again, is mine). It’s one thing to pray for peace between people here on earth, but believers no longer need to pray for the ultimate peace, peace with God.
Throughout the High Middle Ages (the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries), appreciation for the fullness of God’s mercy in Christ continued to erode. The doctrine of purgatory became a bone of contention between Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy, which had split into separate communions at the beginning of this period (see Jacques Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory, translated by Arthur Goldhammer, [Chicago, IL, USA: University of Chicago Press, 1984], 280-288).
Now, it seems, the Lamb of God was not only being implored for mercy by Christians, but by Christians who had died and found themselves stranded in a fiery intermediate realm of conscious punishment between heaven and hell that is not mentioned in Scripture. And it is clear that they are not merely asking for the mercies of temporal existence, since they no longer had that, but for the everlasting mercy that should have already belonged to them as believers on earth. In the second part of his Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri (c. 1265–1321) conjured their plaintive invocations in the vernacular of his Italian countrymen:
And voices then I heard, that each
For peace, for mercy, did beseech
___The Lamb of God, that aye
___Taketh our sins away.
“O Lamb of God” was all their strain:
One word, one measure seemed to reign
___Amongst them all, their sound
___In perfect concord bound.
Io sentia voci, e ciascuna pareva
___Pregar, per pace e per misericordia,
___L’ Agnel di Dio, che le peccata leva.
Pure Agnus Dei eran le loro esordia :
___Una parola in tutte era, ed un modo,
___Si che parea tra esse ogni concordia.
[Charles Lancelot Shadwell, translator, The Purgatory of Dante Alighieri (Purgatorio I-XXVII): An Experiment in Literal Verse Translation, (London, UK and New York, NY, USA: Macmillan and Co., 1892), Canto XVI:16-21, 228, 229. Boldness was added by me.]
Once the Lamb of God had fully taken away their sins, they would finally be able enter heaven; but even though they had believed on earth, and were now dead, for some reason He had not done so as of yet. The apostolic teaching that “…by [God's] will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10, ESV, emphasis mine) was all but completely disappearing from view.
Once Christians stopped looking at Jesus as the ultimate expression of God’s mercy and forgiveness, Who completely frees us from all our guilt by becoming the Lamb who fully takes away our sin, the only natural way to look at Him was as a source of guilt. After all, look at all He went through for us, and look at how puny our gratitude has been! Shouldn’t we be better Christians after all He’s done? What makes us think we can just waltz into heaven after treating Him so poorly?
The human psyche can only withstand such a burden for so long before moving further and further away from the source of its pain, and that means moving further and further away from the truth of Who Christ is and what He accomplished. According to church history, that is precisely what happened, and much of Western secular history is about people who long ago rejected the false image of Christ as the distant, unapproachable Lamb of God Who never wants you to presume that all your sins are actually paid off, but did not put biblical truth in its place. When the core message of the Christian faith is corrupted into something oppressive to the soul and tyrannical to the conscience, society will endure it for a remarkably long time. But eventually, voices will be heard hatefully ranting against it, turning away from the legalistic caricature of Gospel as if it were the authentic item, and this will lead to calls for another gospel, a different gospel, one that doesn’t seem so harsh, perhaps one that leaves all the messy topics of sin, punishment, and God’s wrath out altogether while preserving the more congenial themes of grace, mercy, and so on, as we see today.
And yet even through the darkest spiritual hours of church history, when “the wrath of the Lamb” foretold in Revelation 6:16 was improperly used to torment believers and keep them in line, the truth that He was the victim who suffered, and that it was on account sins we committed against God, never departed from the consensus of true Christians. Behold how far our post-Christian society has drifted from its former moorings! Until only very, very recently, the mere suggestion that what we traditionally call “sin” has at least as much if not more to do with offenses others have committed against us would have been greeted with incredulous derision in virtually every corner of the professing church.
Toward the end of Agnes of God, Dr. Martha Livingston asks, “Agnes, who did this to you?”
Agnes flings her arms back against the wall. “God!” cries Agnes, “It was God,” as she sinks to her knees. “And now I’ll burn in hell because I hate him.”
“Agnes you won’t burn in hell,” says Dr. Livingston. “It’s alright to hate him.”
“That’s enough,” said Mother Miriam.
But who wouldn’t hate a God Who condemns you for resenting it when He abuses you?
It is not, however, about what God has done, or allowed to be done, to us. It’s about what we’ve done, and what we’ve done has been ultimately against God. And yet, even though we’ve sinned against Him, and even though we’ve offended Him, out of love He has chosen to come and bear all our offenses so that we can love Him and be with Him forever. Apart from this, we have no hope.
Some decades after the Reformation, John Donne (1572-1631) would write,
O Lamb of God, which took’st our sin,
Which could not stick to Thee…
[“A Litany,” in A.J. Smith, ed., John Donne: The Complete English Poems, (London, UK, and New York, NY, USA: Penguin Books, 1971; 1986), 325.]
Because our sin could not stick to Christ, and because we believers are in Christ, neither can our sin stick to us. He took it upon Himself and bore it for us. To miss the point that it’s all about our sin, and the One Who paid for it, is to miss not only the one thing that will keep us from having to endlessly pray that God will mercifully spare us from condemnation, but it’s also to miss the only actual basis we can ever have for asking God for anything. As Paul wrote:
He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
[Romans 8:32-34, ESV]