On Jn 1:35-42
“John looked at Jesus and said: Look, there is the Lamb of God!” (Jn 1:35).
This is the second time the phrase Lamb of God has occurred in this first Chapter of St. John’s Gospel. Just a few verses before, we read how the previous day St. John the Baptist had born his testimony to Jesus. On that occasion he had cried out more fully: Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
So, within a very few verses, we have passed from the divine identity of Jesus as outlined in the Gospel’s Prologue, to the fullness of his mission, his mystery, as set forth in the rest of the Gospel; from the theology of the Incarnation to the theology of the Redemption; from Jesus as Word made flesh to Jesus as Lamb of God. And we read these words very appropriately today as we pass from Christmastide to the second Sunday in Ordinary time. The liturgy of Christmastide invites us contemplate in wonder how God in Christ came down to take our flesh. Now the liturgy of Ordinary time invites us to contemplate how he descended even further, taking all our sins upon himself in his sacrificial death on the Cross.
I say Jesus took our sins upon himself, or bore our sins, because this is the language of Isaiah in the 4th Song of the Servant. St. John the Baptist must have had this passage in mind when he pointed publicly to Jesus. Ours were the sufferings he bore, ours the sorrows he was carrying… He was wounded for our rebellions, crushed because of our guilt… Like a lamb led to the slaughter house, like a sheep dumb before its shearers, he never opened his mouth (Is 53). This was the passage being read by the Ethiopian Eunuch, in the Acts of the Apostles, which the deacon Philip explained as all about Jesus (Acts 8:32)
But St. John the Baptist doesn’t quite say here that Jesus bears our sins. He goes further. He says Jesus the Lamb of God takes our sin – sin as such – away. This is all the more remarkable in that the context is John’s activity as a Baptiser. He was engaged in symbolically washing people who wanted to turn away from their sins in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. Yet all the while he knew his baptism could only remain at the level of symbolism, like the animal sacrifices prescribed by the law of Moses: necessary to carry out, but incapable of actually effecting what they symbolise.
I’m reminded here of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. According to the story, King Duncan has just created Macbeth Thane of Cawdor, then come to stay in his Castle. Spurred on by his wife, and by the prophecy of the Witches of Forres, Macbeth murders the King, using the daggers of his drugged servants. He emerges on stage from Duncan’s bed chamber still holding the dripping daggers, horrified by what he has done, with the innocent royal blood all over his hands. For Lady Macbeth, at this point in the play, the remedy is simple.
“A little water cleanses us of this deed” she says. “How easy it is then!”
But Macbeth knows better.
“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine
Making the green one red.”
Later in the play Lady Macbeth herself is tormented by guilt. Walking in her sleep, she tries in vain to remove the spots from her hands. “Here’s the smell of the blood still” she cries. “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand”.
But, according to St. John, in his first letter:
“The Blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin” (1:7)… and “If anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ who is just. He is the sacrifice which expiates our sins, and not only our sins, but the sins of the whole world.” (2:2) and “He has appeared for this reason: to take sins away” (3:5).
In his account of the Passion, St. John explicitly identifies Jesus with the Paschal lamb. He quotes the direction given in Exodus: Not one bone of his will be broken (Jn 19:36, Ex 12:46), and makes clear that Jesus died at the very moment the lambs for the paschal feast were being ritually slaughtered in the Temple.
Three times in the liturgy of the Mass we invoke Jesus under this title Lamb of God. First there’s the mention in the Gloria; Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, we sing. You take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Then there’s the triple Agnus Dei itself, sung at the fraction, or breaking of the consecrated Host. That was first introduced into the Roman liturgy by Pope Sergius I in 687, although it only reached its current form under Pope Innocent III in the 13th century. Finally there’s the showing of the host and chalice to the people just before holy Communion. Ecce Agnus Dei, the Priest says. Here two texts are combined. First there are the words of St. John the Baptist in John Chapter 1. Then there’s a beatitude taken from the Apocalypse. In that book the figure of Christ as the Lamb of God appears some 30 times. According to our new translation:
Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb (Apoc 19:9).
Perhaps more accurately yet we could specify: Blessed are those who are called, or invited, to the wedding feast of the Lamb. For the Lamb of the Apocalypse at the end of the book, at the end of time, marries his Bride, the Church, the Holy City, the Heavenly Jerusalem. At their eternal marriage feast, all sin will be eternally done away with; there all who have washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb (7:14) will be numbered in the Lamb’s Book of life (21:27). Having triumphed over the accuser by the blood of the Lamb (12:11) they will reign for ever and ever (22:5), and their song will ever be:
Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power, riches, wisdom, strength, honour, glory and blessing…
To the One seated on the throne, and to the Lamb, be all praise, honour, glory and power, for ever and ever, Amen (5:13).