A wee boy was sitting in the pew and looked with confusion at a priest in front of him. The priest was holding something white in his hand, both his hands raised above his head; clearly, the priest was showing something. The boy’s confusion sprang from the obvious disparity between what was being shown and the words uttered by the priest: ‘Behold the Lamb of God.’ In the boy’s eyes, the white thing held by the priest didn’t resemble in the slightest the animal mentioned by the priest. Nearly half a century later the same boy – though not a boy anymore – regularly does and says exactly the same as what that priest did and said. The boy – though not a boy anymore – wonders if people looking at him are as confused as he was as a wee boy…
You might think that the boy wasn’t particularly clever; well, if that’s the case, I can tell you that nothing has really changed in that respect, though he’s not a boy anymore. But I’m sure, he wasn’t the only one confused to hear the phrase that doesn’t match the visual. I’m pretty certain that those who heard John the Baptist saying ‘Look, there is the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world’ looked with confusion at the man in his thirties, pointed out by John. It was a strange title to give to anyone; in fact, in such a context it’s used only twice, in both instances in the Gospel of St John, by John the Baptist and just a few verses apart. In quite a similar context, the Lamb of God appears again in the Book of Revelation, ascribed to – yes, you guessed right to the author of the Gospel of St John.
There are two important aspects at play here and we have to look closer at each to understand what’s going on. Firstly, what does John the Baptist refer to by using the title ‘the Lamb of God’? You might remember the story of Abraham, the founding father of the people of Israel. He had his only son at an age when people don’t usually have children anymore. God tested him by asking Abraham to offer his only son Isaac as a sacrifice; essentially to kill him. The father and son had a deeply moving conversation while walking to the top of the mountain, where Abraham was to make the sacrifice. When Isaac, unaware of the imminent danger, asks ‘where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’ his father Abraham gives an evasive response ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering.’ The sentence turned out to be prophetic. Abraham was stopped just before he dealt the blow and finding a ram caught in the thicket by its horns, he offered that animal. That prophecy seemed to be fulfilled again when the blood of a sacrificial lamb was used in Egypt to mark the Israelites’ houses. It saved them from the slaughter of the first-born that swept Egypt and led to leaving for the Promised Land. The Israelites celebrate that to this day as their most important feast: the Passover. However, Christian theology sees Jesus as the ultimate fulfilment of Abraham’s prophecy: ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering.’
That theological perspective takes us nicely to the second important aspect of today’s gospel. As I mentioned earlier on, Jesus was called the Lamb of God only twice in the gospels, and only in the Gospel of St John. Matthew, Mark and Luke, the authors of the three other gospels, used many other so-called titles, like the Christ/the Messiah, the Lord, Son of Man, Son of David and so on. All of those titles were more or less associated with power and might, in line with the then predominant traditions and expectations. Now I’m going to trivialise things a bit in order to give us a better understanding. The gospels by St Matthew, St Mark and St Luke were more like recruitment tools, a bit like an attractive, shiny and colourful prospectus for a university. The gospel of St John was addressed to well-established Christian communities growing in faith; it was more like a proper study programme. St John’s gospel was a meditation or contemplation on the deepest meaning of Jesus’ redemptive mission. There are precious few spectacular, miraculous actions performed by Jesus; those we find in St John’s gospel are wrapped in or followed by lengthy explanations, usually in the form of Jesus’ speeches. St John has no need for the powerful and almighty ‘action-man’, miracle-worker so familiar to the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. According to John, the transformative power of Jesus springs from the selfless, ultimate sacrifice He made on the cross. John called Jesus the Lamb of God in the opening scene of his gospel to set the stage, to present the perspective from which his readers should look at and interpret his gospel all the way to the crucifixion, when the perfect Lamb of God sacrificed himself for the sin of the world.
The wee boy, confused by what he saw and heard, eventually grew in the academy of the gospel to understand what the Lamb of God means. The wee boy – though not a boy anymore – understands now that when he receives the body of the Lamb of God, he draws from the inexhaustible source of life and mercy, Jesus himself. By the way, the wee boy’s name was Tad.