Opening the Word: The Lamb of God

By shedding his blood on our behalf, wrote St. Bede the Venerable, Jesus “condemned the sovereignty of death forever. The Lamb that was innocent was slain. … The Lamb that took away the sins of the world brought to naught the lion that had brought sin into the world.” The Doctor of the Church stated, “It was the Lamb that restored us by the offering of his flesh and blood, so that we might not perish.”

I once summarized today’s readings in the following sentence: “The Son of God became a servant so that by becoming a sacrifice he would be the Savior of mankind.” The Son of God became a servant and a sacrifice so that we, slaves to sin and death, might become children of God. St. Bede’s statement captures both amazing facts: We are restored to life by the saving death of the Son, and we are thus saved from death by the gift of Christ’s life.

Granted, this flood of language about death and life, saving and perishing, and restoration and salvation, can be a bit overwhelming. Honestly, it can seem a bit abstract or even academic. But one of the many beautiful qualities of Scripture is that while it contains plenty of theological heft, it comes to us through events and stories that touch our hearts. This is because Christianity is both the deeply supernatural and profoundly earthly. And that is because of what we celebrated at Christmas: the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate word of God, who came to dwell among men — as true God and true man.

The Gospel of John opens with one of the most beautiful — and daunting — theological passages in the Bible (Jn 1:1-18). Yet even in the middle of that passage there is always a foot squarely placed on the ground: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. ...” (Jn 1:6). John, the relative of Jesus, had a simple but remarkable mission: to offer testimony and “to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him” (Jn 1:7). A bit later, John was hounded about his identity, and the prophet explained that the One whose coming he had been announcing was beyond compare, saying, “I am not worthy to untie [his sandal]” (See Jn 1:19-28).

The following day, as we hear in today’s Gospel, John saw Jesus coming toward him and he proclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” As various scholars have noted, John and Jesus were speaking Aramaic, and the Aramaic word for “lamb” — which is talya — is also the word for “child” or “servant.” For those speaking Aramaic, to say that Jesus was the “lamb of God” was to also say that he was the “son of God,” as well as the “servant of God.”

There are several Old Testament passages about a coming servant of the Lord who would inaugurate God’s reign and establish peace for Israel. While there were five different animal sacrifices, lambs were offered as a perpetual sacrifice (Ex 29:38-42). And it was the sacrifice of unblemished Passover lambs that liberated the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt (Ex 12).

The perfect Son became a perfect lamb, and his perfect sacrifice restored communion between the merciful Father and his wayward creatures. And those who have “been sanctified in Christ Jesus” are “called to be holy,” as St. Paul explained to the Christians in Corinth.

And to be holy is to belong to God, restored to divine life and love.

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.