“It was about four o’clock in the afternoon,” John said. He was writing about it sixty years or so after it happened. It was for him one of those vivid moments that you remember for the rest of your life. It was the moment when John the Baptist, that terrifying prophet, stared at a man who was passing by and said, “There is the Lamb of God!” This other John (the writer of the gospel) perhaps only a teenager at the time, along with his friend Andrew, took off after the stranger. He heard them following, he turned around and asked them, “What do you want?”

               How would you answer that question? It’s one of the hardest of all, especially when you don’t know what you want! Even when you are a mature man or woman it is hard to say what you really want from life; when you are young it is totally bewildering. All you know is great unease, restless idealism, and loneliness, with an intense desire to understand and be understood. The two could think of nothing to say, so they said, “Where do you live?” “Come and see!” he said; you can guess how it took them by surprise. They went, and he talked with them for the rest of the day. Neither of them would ever be the same again.

               It may be a while since you called someone a lamb! For us, a lamb is just the cuddly joyful little animal that you see prancing in the fields in March or April. We project a lot of soft emotions onto lambs, as we do with the young of many animals: kittens, puppies, chicks, ducklings, etc. But what did John the Baptist - that terrifying figure from the desert - mean when he called Jesus the lamb of God?

               Remember that every morning and evening of life a lamb was ritually killed in the Temple as a sacrifice to God. The priest cut its throat and it bled to death. The blood (which to Jews was the life of the animal) was then thrown on the base of the altar, a gift to God, and the meat was burnt. There were scores of other regular occasions for these sacrifices. The one for Christians to think about is the Passover feast.

The oldest Jewish memory of lamb-sacrifice was the strange story of the Passover lamb in the Book of Exodus. The Passover was (and is) an important Jewish festival commemorating their escape from slavery in Egypt and their safe flight across the desert and the Red Sea. To protect themselves from the plagues of Egypt, they were told to mark their dwellings with lamb's blood. Every year thereafter each family would sacrifice a lamb in memory of that deliverance. It was just at the time of the Passover feast that Jesus was put to death in Jerusalem, so it was natural for Christians later on to see him as the Passover Lamb, the Lamb of God.

               But when John the Baptist called him the ‘Lamb of God’, it may have been an echo of a remarkable passage from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah lived about 700 years before Christ, and he was writing about a mysterious “Suffering Servant” who would save his people. But “he was despised and rejected by people, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief…. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…. He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities…by his wounds we are healed…. 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 shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth…. He poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors….”

               At the Eucharist when you see the raised host and hear the words, “This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,” let some of these ancient echoes dwell in your mind, as they have dwelt in the minds of Christians throughout the ages. And let the passing Stranger fascinate you as he fascinated the youthful John and Andrew.


Donagh O'Shea

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