Is 49:3, 5-6; 1 Cor 1:1-3; Jn 1:29-34
“THIS IS THE LAMB OF GOD”
John, the evangelist’s account of the Baptism of Jesus is very different from the other three evangelists. In the Fourth Gospel, John’s baptism is not connected with forgiveness of sins; its purpose is revelatory. Its purpose is that Jesus may be made known to Israel. John does not narrate the baptism event; instead, he puts the meaning of the baptism into John the Baptist’s testimony. He has John the Baptist publicly profess his raison d’être: “The reason why I came…was that he [Jesus] might be made known.” In today’s gospel text, John the Baptists proceeds to reveal Jesus thus: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. He is the one of whom I said, ‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.’” What is the meaning of the title of Jesus: “THE LAMB OF GOD”? (Mind you, Jesus had other titles besides. He is known as THE CHRIST, SAVIOUR, LORD, SON OF GOD, EMMANUEL, MEDIATOR, SERVANT, WORD, RABBI, GOOD SHEPHERD, HIGH PRIEST, etc. Each of these titles is a whole thesis of its own.)
- THE LAMB OF GOD
In today’s Gospel, we read that when John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him, he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). This title is used again in John 1:36. This acclamation causes two disciples of John to leave him and follow Jesus. The expression “LAMB OF GOD”, that word that we pray each time we celebrate Holy Mass, is loaded with meaning. The background for the title ‘lamb of God” may be the victorious apocalyptic lamb who would destroy evil in the world (Revelations 5-7; 17:14); the paschal lamb, whose blood saved Israel (Exodus 12) – (that is why one often hear people declare “I am covered with the blood of Jesus!” meaning that they are completely protected by His blood); and/or the suffering servant led like a lamb to the slaughter as a sin-offering (Isaiah 53:7, 10).
Christ, as the victim who reveals God’s love for us, is symbolized by a lamb. For Christians, he is the “lamb” described in the Book of Isaiah: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its sharers is silent, so he opened not his mouth” (Is 53:7). Sheep and lambs are symbolic in the New Testament not only of Christ but also of his followers. In these cases, Jesus is the shepherd and his followers are his flock. Jesus searches for the lost sheep until he founds it, leaving all the “safe” sheep to look after themselves in the meanwhile. When Peter was entrusted with the flock of the Lord, Peter, he was told to “feed” his sheep and lambs. Jesus sent his followers out into the world with no weapons, no money, no power – “like sheep among wolves.” People who die for believing in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, for not defending themselves by partaking in violence, imitate Christ. To be martyred is to be “like a lamb that is led to the slaughterhouse.” Lambs suffer violence; they do not inflict it. They are universal symbols of innocence. Lambs have always been favorite animals for sacrifice. A sacrificial lamb is a metaphorical reference to a person or animal sacrificed for the common good. When John the Baptist refers to Jesus as “the lamb of God”, he means that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who in his life and death would reveal the true nature of God.
In Christianity, the lamb represents Christ as both suffering and triumphant. The lamb is typically a sacrificial animal, and may also symbolize gentleness, innocence, and purity. In addition, the lamb symbolizes sweetness, forgiveness and meekness.
When the Lamb is depicted with the LION (Cf. Is 11:6; 65:25), the pair can mean a state of paradise. “The lamb with the lion” – often a paraphrase from Isaiah, and more closely quoted as “the lion and lamb”, “a child will lead them”, etc., are an artistic and symbolic device, most generally related to peace. It represents the Messianic Age.
- THE LAMB OF GOD IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
To understand why the title “Lamb of God” is used for Christ, we must first appreciate the celebration of Passover. We recall that at about 1250 BC, the Israelites were slaves of Egypt. God heard the cry of His people. He sent Moses to deliver them from their bondage. After Moses had performed nine signs, and Pharaoh’s heart was still unmoved, finally, God told Moses to have each family take a one-year-old, male, unblemished lamb; slaughter the lamb; and paint the door posts and lintel of every house where they would eat its roasted flesh with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. That night, the Angel of Death would “pass over” the homes protected by the blood, but take the lives of the firstborn children unprotected by the blood of the lamb. Because of that blood sacrifice, Pharaoh let the people go: they went from slavery to freedom, from a land of sin to the Promised land, and from death to new life.
The prophets used this image of the lamb to describe the Messiah. Isaiah prophesied, “Though he was harshly treated, he submitted and opened not his mouth; like a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep before the shearer, he was silent and opened not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). However, the image is twofold: The Messiah would be both the SACRIFICIAL LAMB TO ATONE FOR SIN and THE SUFFERING SERVANT. Interestingly, when speaking to the Ethiopian eunuch who was reading this exact passage from Isaiah (“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its sharers is silent, so he opens not his mouth…”), St. Philip told him how it referred to Christ and how He fulfilled it (Acts 8:26-35).
- THE LAMB OF GOD IN THE GOSPELS
in the Gospels, Jesus is specifically identified as “the lamb of God” in the sense of both the sacrificial offering for sin and the suffering servant. A typical example is the declaration of John the Baptist in today’s Gospel: “Look! There is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). After foretelling His passion, death, and resurrection for the third time, Jesus asserted, “Anyone among you who aspires to greatness must serve the rest, and whoever wants to rank first among you must serve the needs of all. Such is the case of the Son of Man who has come, not to be served by others, but to serve, to give His own life as a ransom for the many” (Matthew 20:26-28).
Furthermore, the imagery of “Lamb of God” becomes much clearer in the Passion Narratives of the Gospels. In St. John’s gospel, Pilate condemned Jesus to death on the preparation day for Passover at noon (John 18:28, 19:14), the hour when the priests began to slaughter Passover lambs in the temple. After the crucifixion, the Gospel recorded that they did not break any of Jesus’ bones in fulfillment of Scripture (John 19:36). This reference corresponds to Exodus 12:46 and Numbers 9:12 where none of the Passover lamb’s bones were to be broken. After Jesus’ death, the soldier thrust forward his lance, piercing the heart of our Lord; out flowed blood and water (John 19:34). In Church theology, these are always interpreted as signs of the life-giving sacraments of Holy Eucharist and Baptism.
It is very touching and heart-rending to ponder the depth of what is happening in the passion narratives. At the crucifixion, Jesus, the innocent and sinless victim, takes all of our sins unto Himself. He, though, does not just bear our sins and suffer the punishment for us that is due for them. No, Jesus Himself expiates the sins. He, as Priest, offers Himself on the altar of the cross. Through His blood He washes away sin. However, unlike the Passover lamb that was slaughtered, roasted, and eaten, our Lord rose from the dead, conquering both sin and death. He has truly delivered us from the slavery of sin, shown us the path of salvation, and given us the promise of everlasting life. He has made a new, perfect, and everlasting covenant with His own blood. Therefore, St. Peter exhorted, “Realize that you were delivered from the futile way of life your fathers handed on to you, not by any diminishable sum of silver or gold, but by Christ’s blood beyond all price, the blood of a spotless, unblemished lamb…” (I Peter 1:19).
- THE IMAGE OF THE LAMB OF GOD EVOKES VICTORY
The lamb represents Christ not only as suffering and subdued. It represents him as truly triumphant and victorious. The Book of Revelation pictures the Lamb surrounded by angels, the “living creatures,” and elders, who cried out, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and praise!” (Revelation 5:12). “Jesus is the King of kings, and Lord of lord because they will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them” (Revelation 17:14). He will be victorious against the powers of evil and will invite the righteous to the wedding feast of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9), the union of the Church, the new Jerusalem, in heaven with the Lord.
For this reason, the AGNUS DEI (the Lamb of God) is sung during Holy Mass, at the moment of the breaking of consecrated Host (the fraction). St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) preached of how the fraction symbolized the Passion of Christ: “What Christ did not suffer on the Cross, He suffers in the sacrifice for thee.” The hymn itself invokes Christ and recalls His sacrificial death with overtones of a hymn of victory of the triumphal Lamb. This belief is then emphasized again when the priest holds up the broken Host and says, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb.” This reflects very well the imagery of the Book of Revelation.
Our knowledge of and faith in the Lamb of God reminds of our sinfulness and the painful death that Jesus underwent in order to free us from the bondage of Satan. It tells of the Love that God has for us, by sending his Son to die for us even when we were still sinners. (Jn 3:16) “Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life.” Therefore, as we celebrate the mysteries of the Mass, we are invited to look to the Lamb who suffered, died, and rose for our salvation. We are invited to gather around the altar of the Lamb, offering to Him our own hearts and pledging to be His servants, so that we may welcome Him and become wedded to Him in the Holy Eucharist.