The prologue of the Gospel of John makes clear who Jesus Christ is. He is the Word made flesh. He is the glory of the Father, the presence of God dwelling among men and women. He is God.
John the Baptist makes an equally remarkable claim in the Gospel: “‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’” What does John the Baptist mean? It is important to remember that Jesus is crucified in the Gospel of John on the day of preparation for Passover, specifically at noon (cf. Jn 19:14). At noon, the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple.
The life of the lamb is given over for the salvation of Israel, saving them from death itself. Jesus’ death and resurrection is thus the new Passover. It is the Passover where human nature passes through the darkness of sin and death and is resurrected into eternal life.
John the Baptist is testifying to Jesus’ identity as the one who has come to save Israel, to bring every nation from death toward new life. He sees his mission as pointing toward this moment in which salvation might become possible for Israel and all the nations: “‘The reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel” (Jn 1:31).
And what is revealed about Jesus in his baptism? John the Baptist describes this moment from his own perspective: “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him ...” (Jn 1:32).
The descent of the Spirit upon Jesus is essential to understanding this passage. In the Old Testament, the Spirit descends upon the great king chosen by God to lead Israel to its final victory. “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and understanding, A spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord” (Is 11:2).
Thus, John the Baptist witnesses to the identity of Jesus Christ as the last and great king, who will make Israel “a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (Is 49:6).
It is worth thinking about our identity as those who are baptized into Jesus Christ, becoming sons and daughters of the living God. Chosen from all the nations, we are clothed in the presence of Christ as we descend into the waters of the Jordan. The Spirit descends upon us as we are anointed with chrism, our very bodies becoming a fragrant offering to God.
We now share in Jesus’ kingship as children of God. We are like Paul “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy” (1 Cor 1:2). We are called by the name Christian not because this is the name of our religion but because we have become in baptism “little Christs.” The Spirit anoints us as servants of the Father, bearing the mark of the Son upon us.
The Lamb of God is still making himself known to the world. Every time we celebrate the Eucharist in our parish church, we proclaim, “Behold the Lamb of God.” Every time a fellow Christian dies for his or her faith throughout the world, this martyr manifests the kingship of Christ to the world. Every time we give ourselves over to care for the poor, the Word made flesh is made known.
It’s not just John the Baptist who testifies to the Lamb of God’s presence among us.
It’s you. It’s me. It’s the effects of Christ’s baptism known throughout the world.
“Here am I, Lord, I come to do your will” (Ps 40:8-9).
Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.