Bishop Hugh Gilbert OSB reflects on the meaning of the Messianic title of the Lamb of God.
One of the titles of our Lord prominent in Eastertide is that of “the Lamb”. It occurs in three of the five Mass Prefaces we have at this time. It occurs in a hymn of Evening Prayer – quite a familiar hymn, I think, beginning in English: “At the Lamb’s high feast we sing.” We hear the phrase, from St Paul, “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7) – “Passover” here meaning the Passover Lamb, the Lamb sacrificed and eaten at the Jewish Passover. In other words, our Lamb is Christ.
For some reason, this title of Jesus has touched me. I have a hunch there is something here for us. There’s something for us – in and beyond our current pandemic – something for our prayer and our life in the world in which we are, in this 21st c. I just want to try and “suss out” what that may be. I doubt it can be captured in a single formula. As Tennyson once said of imagery in his own poetry: “the thought within the image is more than any one interpretation”. This Lamb is large.
Scripture, surely, is the first place to seek him. “It is remarkable how important a part is played in the Bible by the image of the lamb”, wrote Joseph Ratzinger, now Emeritus Pope Benedict (Behold the Pierced One, p. 114). Anyway, here I will follow the biblical trail.
There is art, though, too. Traditionally, and especially in Western Christianity, representations of Jesus as the Lamb are many. The image features in mosaics and frescoes, wax discs, statues, ivories, wood-cuts, stained-glass, paintings – and in England at least on pub-signs too. I would recommend sight, especially, of the 6th c. mosaic of the Lamb of God in the dome of the presbytery of San Vitale, Ravenna, of Francisco de Zurbaran’s 17th c. painting of the bound Lamb in the Prado of Madrid, and above all of Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s wonderful 15th c. altarpiece in St Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, one of Europe’s masterpieces – coveted, incidentally, by Adolf Hitler. Then there’s music too, so many settings of the Agnus Dei. Think of the aria in Bach’s B minor Mass, or the version in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis of 1824, “a prayer for inner and outer peace.”
To resume the thread: Lambs – defined as sheep up to one year of age –had a precarious life in the ancient world, and still do. Their life-prospects are not cheerful. Nowadays, they are sacrificed to the demands of the market, usually within four months of their birth. Anciently, they were one of the preferred animals for sacrifice to the gods, and were destined therefore not just for the table, but for a fire and an altar. Lambs and sheep have been easy fodder for the great crying human need to sacrifice to the gods, to make offerings to a divinity – all in an attempt to re-establish harmony between our struggling selves and the higher powers: to acknowledge them, propitiate them, win favours from them, be at peace with them.
This is in Scripture too, but at the same time Scripture moves beyond it. There is a path worth following here. As I’ve tried to follow the thread of the Lamb, it does feel like hearing music. Not a theme and variations exactly; rather, a melody that is continually being enriched, incorporating new motifs, accruing new harmonies or being differently orchestrated. And it does all rise to a climax, as we shall see.
I want to look at Abel, Abraham, Moses and the prophets, then at John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, John the Seer of the book of Revelation. And John the Baptist’s line: Behold the Lamb of God can be a guide. It is a journey to prayer, I hope.
Let’s begin. Life after the Fall begins with two brothers and two sacrifices: Cain with his fruit or cereal offering, mysteriously rejected, and the shepherd Abel’s who “brings some of the firstlings of his flock” (Gen 4:4), lambs in other words. “And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering” (Gen 4:4) – “regard” – in English anyway – suggesting a look. We know the sequel. Out of envy, Cain kills his brother. The shepherd who offers lambs is accepted, but becomes a “lamb for the slaughter” himself. Our Eucharistic Prayer, no. 1, still prays over our own sacrificed Lamb: “Be pleased to look upon these offerings with a serene and kindly countenance, and to accept them, as once you were pleased to accept the gifts of your servant Abel the just…” Connections already. The Eucharist constantly recurs.
At the Easter Vigil, we read Genesis ch. 22: the heart-rending story of the test, the sacrifice of Abraham – commanded to do the unthinkable and offer his beloved son Isaac. “And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘My father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son’. He said, ‘Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’ Abraham said, ‘God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” So they went both of them together” (Gen 22:6-8). As the story unfolds, the Lord prevents Abraham sacrificing his son. He sees a ram caught in a thicket, and it is offered instead. “On the mountain God provides” (Gen 22:14), provides a lamb or a ram for sacrifice. But that ram is only a first fulfilment, as the paschal lamb is another. “God himself will provide the lamb.” It has been said that the whole Old Testament history of Israel was a long waiting for that unconscious prophecy to be fulfilled. There will be a lamb provided by God, a lamb through whom God himself will put everything right, will put us and all creation at rights with him – on the mountain, the high place, of the Cross. “God himself will provide”, will provide “for himself” some translations say. The Father himself will take on what he asked of Abraham, and the Son will take on the part of a willing Isaac. “Thus – it has been written – the principle of self-sacrificing love belongs to the essence of the Godhead” (R.H. Charles). “God himself will provide the lamb.” There is, as it were, a Lamb-in-waiting, a Lamb-in-God. This is why St Peter, in his 1st Letter, links Christ with the paschal lamb and then says: “he was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake” (1 Pet 1:20). This is why, beside the Jordan – perhaps at the moment when sheep and lambs were being herded towards Jerusalem for sacrifice – the Baptist identifies Jesus as “the Lamb of God”. He is the Lamb provided by God himself, pre-existent in God, pre-destined by God to become flesh and take away the sins of the world. At the very least, there is a divine hinterland to the figure of the Lamb: “God himself will provide…”
Moses and Passover
Let’s pass now from Abraham to Moses, and hear the melody further elaborate. According to the Mosaic law, in Exodus and Numbers, two lambs were to be offered daily in the future Temple, one in the morning and one in the evening. This was certainly happening in Jesus’ time. It was the core of Israel’s daily worship, which was already seen as a means by which the world was kept in being. According to Leviticus, lambs could be offered by individuals who wanted to sacrifice to God for personal reasons. Most famously, most prophetically, there is the Passover Lamb of Exodus ch. 12. “Christ our Passover, St Paul will say, has been sacrificed.” From the 1st reading Maundy Thursday, we remember the rubrics. The setting is slavery in Egypt, but springtime too – “the first month of the year”. On the 10th day, as the moon is approaching its fullness, a lamb was to be selected. A lamb one year old, a male and “without blemish”, immaculate, in peak condition. On the evening of the 14th day, at full moon, the lamb was to be slaughtered, its blood put on the doorposts and lintels of the Israelites’ houses, its flesh roasted and eaten. It was to be eaten, in each household, that very night, while the plague-bringing angel passed over the Egyptians, those at the meal, belted and spurred as it were, standing, ready to set out on the great expedition of the exodus, the journey to freedom. Again, this so anticipates the “more” that is to come. “God himself will provide”. “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed”, St Paul again, “a lamb without blemish”, says St Peter (1 Pt 1:19), picking up another element. In Jesus’ time the slaughter of the Passover lambs took place in the Temple, and the rabbis by then understood this, not just as a practical piece of butchering, but as an atoning sacrifice. So, on the threshold of the exodus, of being set free from slavery, “redeemed” (which is what that word means), a lamb is sacrificed, his blood sprinkled as a protection from harm and the flesh eaten as a viaticum, food for the journey. Again, we pick up the Christian resonances, especially the Eucharistic ones. The Eucharist fulfils the Jewish Passover (cf. CCC 1340). It re-presents the sacrifice of the true Lamb, and gives us his flesh to eat, strength for the journey to God, and blood to drink, protection for the doorposts of the heart. No wonder we invoke the Agnus Dei / the Lamb of God as we approach. Connections again.
Now, let’s pass from Moses to the prophets, from the Passover lamb to the prophetic lamb. We are about to cross the bridge that leads from the Old Testament to the New.
In the Israelite world, it has been said, “the sacrifice of a lamb was a common enough event to be used metaphorically for the suffering or death of an innocent on behalf of others” (Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible, in loc). It is in the two great prophetic books, of Isaiah and Jeremiah, that this occurs.
Here is Jeremiah, suddenly aware of the evil intentions of his opponents: “but I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter” (Jer 11:19). The passage is read, in reference to Christ, on Saturday of the 4th week of Lent.
Better known still is Isaiah 53:7:
“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 silent,
so he opened not his mouth.”
This verse, and the whole surrounding passage, Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12, describes a mysterious unnamed figure, God’s servant, presumably a prophet, who endures rejection and apparently death and yet somehow vicariously saves his people. Looking back as Christians, we can hear the future coming. The whole passage is familiar to us as the 1st reading on Good Friday. Our particular verse, with its lamb, was being read by the Ethiopian eunuch, in ch. 8 of the Acts of the Apostles, when Philip meets him. It’s “beginning from this Scripture” that Philip expounds the “good news of Jesus” (Acts 8:35).
There’s plenty happening here. In both Jeremiah and Isaiah, the “lamb” becomes a metaphor for a human being. This is a jump, a leap, a transposition. It’s a humanization. Both quotations use the phrase “led to the slaughter” – a lamb’s usual end. There’s a strong suggestion, then, that these persons are headed for death. In both, the metaphor evokes the person’s character or attitude. Jeremiah the lamb is “gentle”; the Isaian lamb is “silent”, “opens not its mouth”. In the New Testament these become qualities of the suffering Christ; he eschews violence when arrested, and keeps his own counsel before the high priest and before Pilate. “He committed no sin – Peter will later write – neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Pet 2:22-23; cf. Is 53:9). Again, the figure of the Lamb is growing, the metaphor is continually being enriched. Most of all here, when the Isaian lamb becomes someone “stricken for the transgression of his people” (v.8), who “makes himself an offering for sin” (v.10), “bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (v.12), making “many to be accounted righteous” (v. 11). As a devout Jew, steeped in his Scriptures, Jesus would have known this passage. There is no doubt it informed Jesus’ own understanding of his destiny, as well as the early Church’s understanding of him. And the figure of the lamb is there.
The Gospel of John
Now, we can come to the New Testament and the Gospel of John, and the witness therein of John the Baptist.
“The next day he [the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” (Jn 1:29). This is the first time Jesus appears in person, physically, in the Gospel of John. So the Baptist’s description of God’s Lamb is not a throwaway remark. It’s a resounding opening chord. Christian imagination has pictured the Baptist using his finger to identify Jesus. I’ve already mentioned the sheep being led for slaughter milling around. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is the true Light, the true Bread, the true Vine, and so on. He gathers and perfects in himself so many elements of creation. John is saying here, he is the true Lamb too, the Lamb. The Lamb Abraham foretold. The Lamb prescribed by Moses. The One who exists before me, says the Baptist, and ranks above me (cf. Jn 1:30). The Lamb provided by God, in waiting from all eternity, consecrated and sent by the Father to take away sins and fulfill the divine purposes. We have a sense of everything coming together. By describing Jesus in such terms, the Catechism says, John the Baptist “reveals that Jesus is at the same time the suffering Servant who silently allows himself to be led to the slaughter and who bears the sin of the multitudes, and also the Paschal Lamb, the symbol of Israel’s redemption at the first Passover” (CCC 608). That is good exegesis!
The next day, John, “standing with two of his disciples”, sees Jesus again. He “looks” at him, taking his own advice, and repeats the first part of this phrase, “Behold, the Lamb of God” (Jn 1:35-36). What’s striking this time is that the two disciples immediately “followed Jesus”. Here’s another strand. I remember an old farmer saying, “Never trust a bull.” You wouldn’t follow a bull, nor a lion, but a child might well run after a lamb. Jesus is not alarming, not frightening; he draws, he attracts, he is irresistible. He is, in that fine English word, winsome. He turns and sees the disciples following and, when they ask where he’s staying, says “Come and see.” “Behold the Lamb of God.” And so the disciples begin their association with Jesus. In Revelation, this notion of “following the Lamb” recurs. Another motif is entering the music.
Often, the Gospel of John mentions something at its beginning and returns to it at the end. And so with the Lamb. Though the phrase doesn’t recur, the symbolism does. In John’s Gospel, Jesus goes to his Passion carrying his own cross, as Isaac carried the wood in Genesis; he goes as the beloved Son, the Lamb God has at last provided. As already mentioned, Jesus is crucified while the paschal lambs were being slaughtered on Passover eve; he is the true Lamb. When his side is pierced by the soldier after death, blood comes out, as well as water: the blood of the Lamb. His bones are not broken, as was usual to shorten the agony of the crucified, and so another Scripture is fulfilled, “Not a bone of him shall be broken” (Jn 19:36), a requirement of the Passover lamb (Ex 12:46). At the foot of the Cross, the disciple Jesus loved, probably one of the two who followed the Baptist’s pointing finger at the very start, now in depth does what the Baptist says. He beholds the Lamb. “Behold the Lamb of God.” “He who saw it has borne witness” (Jn 19:35). “They shall look on him whom they have pierced” (Jn 19:37).
The Book of Revelation
Now, with fear and trembling, we can, through the eye-glass of the Crucified, look further still. Let me quote Joseph Ratzinger again and a little more: “It is remarkable how important a part is played in the Bible by the image of the lamb. We come across it in the very first pages, in the account of the sacrifice of Abel, the shepherd; and in the last book of Holy Scripture the Lamb is at the very centre of heaven and earth.”
Let’s turn to the book of Revelation.
“Behold the Lamb of God.” “I, John – yet another John –saw” is a refrain that runs through the Apocalypse. And what does he see? Manifold things, in heaven and on earth, theatrical, cinematic, symbolical things, some beautiful, some bizarre, some terrifying: lampstands and thrones, angels with trumpets and bowls, armies and earthquakes, crowds waving palms and playing harps, falling stars and flying millstones, a dragon and two beasts, a woman clothed with the sun, a gaudy prostitute, precious gems and glass oceans, a city coming down from above. And most of all, a lamb – the Lamb. Our theme comes to its climax, its Alleluia chorus. Christ – the crucified, risen and glorified Christ – is here called the Lamb 28 times, and he stands at the centre of heaven and earth. “I, John, saw.”
The author of Revelation was (another) John, John the Seer we can call him. He was a Christian prophet. He was exiled on the island of Patmos for having preached the Gospel. He shared the visions he received so that his readers and listeners, then and now, might behold the Lamb of God. He “wrote what he saw” (Rev 1:19) to encourage, empower, keep faithful fellow-Christians who, in a corner of the Roman Empire (the “Province of Asia” in what’s now Turkey), were under pressure: state persecution, apostasy and doctrinal confusion in their own ranks, and general political and economic insecurity. John wants them, and us, to see what he sees – above all, this Lamb and the God whose Lamb he is. IT is an echo of the words of John the Baptist. Look at him: he is wounded, he has conquered. Keep looking and, however wounded you are, you will conquer too. This book celebrates the victory of the Lamb and ours in him.
So, who is the Lamb? Jesus, naturally. Jesus slain and risen. “In the Apocalypse – a scholar has written – two ideas are represented [by the title of Lamb]: that of Christ as an offering, and that of the Messianic leader of men…these two ideas are merged in the author’s mind…the Lamb who conquers is the Lamb who has given himself up as a willing sacrifice” (V. Taylor, The Names of Jesus, p. 117). The lamb led to slaughter has, precisely because of his willing sacrifice, now “acquired majesty, dignity, honour, authority and power”. Both elements are his forever, and so he is the truest, strongest force in human history. He lives simultaneously, “in the midst of the throne”, that is, “in the bosom of the Father”, and in the midst of the Church, her communities, her faithful (cf. 1:13; 14:1). He is, however hiddenly here below, the centre of heaven and earth. His stage, his screen, is all creation. A 14th c. English poem, the Pearl, goes further and speaks of the joy of the Lamb: “The Lamb’s delight let no one hope to imagine! / Though he was hurt and had a wound, / In his expression it was never seen / His glances were so gloriously glad/ I beheld among his bright retinue / How they superabounded with life.” Life and joy flow from this Lamb.
He it is who opens the scroll that contains God’s purposes and so initiates their accomplishment. As “king of kings and lord of lords” (17:14), he leads his followers to victory, His blood – that is, the power of his personal life, love and sacrifice, – transforms his followers; it cleanses them (7:14) and empowers them to live faithful Christian lives and to love, in turn, to the end (12:11). He draws his followers to himself, and they follow him wherever he goes (14:4). After the great prostitute has been judged and Babylon (Rome) has fallen (17-18), after the corporate strongholds of evil have collapsed from within (17:15ff), the “marriage of the Lamb” (19:7) to his bride the Church can be celebrated with a joyful feast. Blessed indeed those who are invited to it (19:9)! And all creation worships him, as it worships the One upon the throne – the Adoration of the Lamb.
The Way of the Lamb
“Behold the Lamb!” See the Lamb who was slain and to whom past, present and future belong. John asks this of the Christian communities he is sustaining, harassed communities, experiencing their own lamb-like vulnerability He is also asking the whole world of his day, enslaved to totalitarian power and false ideologies (ch. 13), threatened by foreign invasion, war, food shortages, disease and death (ch 6), and with economic collapse on the horizon (ch. 18), to turn in the same direction.
And when we do look at the Lamb, we see who God truly is. We learn that true power doesn’t reside in the apparatus of the State or the thought police, or in any kind of violence. True power, true greatness belongs to the Lamb – John perhaps reinforces the paradox by using throughout a word that strictly means ‘little lamb, lambkin’. His first vision of the Lamb is meant to “throw” us. Who will open the scroll? All heaven is awaiting the answer. Is there anyone? Yes, says an elder: the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David – in other words, a figure of royal, leonine power. And who appears? “A lamb that seems to have been slain”. Shock and bathos. (Cf 5:1-6). A slain Lamb is the medium of God’s transforming power, and human fulfillment is to be found in inner connection to him, vulnerable and pierced (1:7) but the “faithful and true witness” (3:14). Because he “loves us” (1:5) and gave his lamb-life, he is “the beginning of God’s creation” (3:14). Having died and risen, he has the keys of death and hades (1:18) and is stronger than all the forces of destruction. This is the reversal of perspective John is calling for. It is a revisionist view of what really matters, of what determines the course of events, of what survives and outlasts the horrors of history and the trials of any life. It is the perspective of Dostoevsky’s monk in The Brothers Karamazov: “At some thoughts one stands perplexed, above all at the sight of human sin, and wonders whether to combat it by force or by humble love. Always decide ‘I will combat it by humble love.’ If you resolve on that once and for all, you can conquer the whole world. Loving humility is a terrible force: it is the strongest of all things, and there is nothing else like it.”
This is the way of the Lamb. It is the way that personally and ecclesially – as the Church in this time and place – seems an apt ethic for now. We are called to be “with” (14:1) the Lamb, his followers, his companions, and, like John the Seer of Patmos, to give witness to him and his Gospel (1:9). Those “with him are called and chosen and faithful” (17:14). To discern this way, one could usefully explore the pattern of Christian life envisaged by Revelation. It turns on the idea of “testimony to Jesus” (12:17), witness, martyria, sometimes in the literal sense, but not always. It recognizes the fragility of Christians, not just in the sense that they are not protected from a violent death, but because they are the object of diabolical hostility (12:17) and testing (2:10) and can be deceived and conquered (cf. 13:7). Hence the frequent emphasis on “patient endurance”, on holding fast, on being faithful to the end. “Toil” is mentioned (2:2) and there are calls to repentance (2:5 etc). The staples of “love and faith and service” are required (2:19), and the keeping of the commandments (12:17). It requires chastity, abstention from any form of worship of false gods (14:4). It means constantly praying, “Come, Lord Jesus” (22:17, 20). There are resemblances here to the “signs of holiness in today’s world”, listed by Pope Francis in Ch. 4 of Gaudete et Exsultate, “patience, perseverance and meekness”, and the rest, and his call to “spiritual combat, vigilance and discernment” in Ch. 5.
This way of the Lamb, in our own times, has surely been taken by the Dietrich Bonhoeffers and Alfred Delps, of the Maximilian Kolbes and Edith Steins; the way of the Hutu and Tutsi seminarians in Burundi who refused to separate when one side’s gunmen came and so died together as “brothers”; the way indicated so lucidly by Bishop Pierre Claverie, OP, now beatified, not long before he and his Muslim driver were assassinated. The Church in Algeria, he said – a tiny Church in an Islamic ocean, in a country then racked by civil war – was with Mary and John at the foot of the Cross while Christ was being crucified by the surrounding violence. “The Church deceives herself and deceives the world if she presents herself as one power among the others or as a purely humanitarian organization or as some spectacular evangelical movement.” The way is a love, for which “Jesus has given us a taste and traced the way: ‘there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’” (Homily at Prouilhe, June 1996). And this same way can be followed in less dramatic circumstances than those evoked. It can be lived unobtrusively in daily life and is – praise God – by countless people. In our own setting, we can live with the diminishing endorsement of culture and law or even of good reputation; we can live with our failures and do what we can to make amends; our mission is to offer a hope that attracts.
If we do “behold the Lamb”, surely something of his “glorious gladness” can flow into us, into a way of life which echoes his patience and gentleness and silence, his non-violence, his non-harming, and is permeated with a quiet alluring beauty; which has a sense of a prevailing divine providence and intention, privileges the gift of self and believes that it is loving humility which sustains and transfigures the world. John Saward has made connections with St Therese of Lisieux’s way of spiritual childhood.
Let me quote Joseph Ratzinger one more time: “According to the Book of Revelation, “the Lamb is at the very centre of heaven and earth…[and] the Lamb alone can open the seals of history. It is the Lamb, who appears as slain and yet lives, who receives the homage of all creatures in heaven and earth. The lamb which lets itself be killed without complaint is a symbol of meekness: Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. The Lamb with his mortal wound tells us that, in the end, it is not those who kill who will be the victors; on the contrary the world is sustained by those who sacrifice themselves. It is the sacrifice of him who becomes the “Lamb slain” that holds heaven and earth together. True victory lies in this sacrifice. It gives rise to that life which imparts a meaning to history, through all its atrocities, and which can finally turn them into a song of joy” (Op. cit., p114) – the song of the Lamb.
Behold the Lamb of God! Let’s go looking for him: on the Cross, in heaven, in the Eucharist – and in the company of those who follow his way.