John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, 'After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.' I myself did not know him; but I came baptising with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel." And John testified, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptise with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit.' And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God."
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 wrote 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…” (ch. 53).
At the Eucharist when we see the raised host and hear the words, “This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,” these ancient echoes can dwell in our minds, as they have dwelt in the minds of Christians throughout the ages.
In the book of Revelation Jesus is referred to 28 times as a lamb; and he referred to his disciples as lambs; he said to Peter, “Feed my lambs” (Jn 21:15). I may have a recognisable identity, such as lawyer, banker, even prize fighter; but my deeper identity is that I am a lamb and a dove!
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