Why is Jesus called the Lamb of God?

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The Paschal mystery remains the focal point of salvation: that the innocent one bears away the world's guilt.

Lamb of God, or Agnus Dei, has come to be a familiar liturgical formula referring to Jesus. This is interesting, as the term only occurs twice in the New Testament, and not at all in the Old. 

Of course, sheep and lambs are pervasive images in both Testaments, as you would expect in an agrarian culture. Lambs were essential to the religious sacrifices of Israel, including the centrally significant Passover lamb whose blood marked the doorposts and lintels of Hebrew houses in Egypt on the night when the angel of death passed over the land. Yearling lambs were also sacrificed at Israel's priestly ordination rites, and lambs served as peace offerings and sin offerings as well. It's clear from the earliest usages that the blood of lambs had special authority as a sign of God's protection, guidance, and forgiveness.

In the prophecies of Isaiah, the theology is advanced. Isaiah sees the lamb as an innocent and vulnerable animal, gentle and peace-loving. Contrast it with the lion, wolf, or bear, always in search of prey. In the songs of the faithful servant, Isaiah envisions the servant as a lamb led to slaughter, bearing the guilt of many without protest.

These early Hebrew understandings of the lamb's role in purifying the community of sin, and in making peace between the people and God, certainly contributed to John the Baptist's meaning when he identifies Jesus to the crowds: "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" In John's gospel, this phrase is in the Baptist's mouth twice. From that same Johannine community emerges the image of the victorious Lamb of Revelation, who sits at God's throne and illuminates the New Jerusalem as its sole source of light.

It's no wonder that, when Philip the deacon encounters the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts, the man is puzzling over Isaiah's references to the lamb led to slaughter and trying to pierce the mystery. Why would God send a lamb to do the work of communal restoration? Why indeed? The Paschal mystery remains the focal point of salvation: that the innocent one bears away the world's guilt.

So we sing of this mystery in the Gloria at Mass, and in the three-fold "Lamb of God" before communion. "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world," the priest intones. "Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb." 

Scripture: Exodus 12:3-9; Leviticus 3:6-11; 4:32-35; Isaiah 11:6; 53:7; Luke 10:3; John 1:29, 36; 21:21:15; Acts 8:32; 1 Peter 1:19; Revelation 5:6-13; 7:9-17

Books: At the Supper of the Lamb: A Pastoral and Theological Commentary on the Mass, by Paul Turner (Liturgy Training Publications,  2011)

The Lamb and the Beasts, by Stephen J. Binz (Twenty-Third Publications, 2006)

E-Resource: Website "Art and Theology: revitalizing the Christian imagination through painting, poetry, music, and more" - Don't miss Victoria Emily Jones' articles on liturgical art. And please, enjoy a hymn or two.

Reprinted with permission from PrepareTheWord.com. ©TrueQuest Communications.

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