Fr. Patrick Sheridan, O.S.B.
I remember when I was a child my younger sister’s favorite Nursery Rhyme was “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” For about one year, age 3-4, she would sing it every day over and over again. And I can understand that. For a little child it conjures up pictures of cute, cuddly baby lambs prancing around in the meadow– just begging to be hugged by little children. But what did John the Baptist mean when he called Jesus the Lamb of God?
Every morning and evening a lamb was ritually killed in the Temple as a sacrifice to God. There wasn’t anything cute or cuddly about it. The priest slit 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. It was pretty grizzly business. And there were scores of other regular occasions for similar sacrifices. The one for Christians to think about is the Passover Feast.
The oldest Jewish memory of lamb-sacrifice was the rather 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. To protect themselves from the plague of the slaying of the firstborn of the Egyptians, they were told to mark their door posts with lamb’s blood. Every year thereafter each family would sacrifice a lamb in memory of that deliverance. It was 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 Jesus is both the offerer of the sacrifice and its victim and his death and resurrection inaugurate a New Covenant between God and his people. It’s significant that in all the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper there is no mention of a lamb being eaten during the meal. Because there was, of course, a new Lamb, who told his companions to take and eat, take and drink the bread and wine “handed over for you.” And it is through the blood of this Lamb that we find salvation and liberation.
The Baptizer goes on to say that he personally saw the Spirit of God come down on Jesus like a dove and it remained with him. The dove is a symbol of new life, recalling the dove which brought the olive branch back to Noah’s ark and indicated that the Flood was over. At the same time, the One who told John to baptize with water also said that the One on whom the Spirit came down (Jesus) would in turn baptize with the Holy Spirit. And the Baptist concludes: “Now I have seen and give witness that he is the Son of God.”
Each one of us has also received the same Spirit in our baptism. It was that Spirit which inspired Jesus in all his Messianic work climaxing in his death on the cross. May the same Spirit inspire us to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and join with him in his work to build the Kingdom.