Look! There is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (Jn 1:29)
When you think about it, why did John the Baptist point to Jesus, that very first time, and call him the “Lamb of God?”
Here the people of Israel were sitting, a nation subject to imperial Rome. They had a king, who was in the pay of Rome. They had a Temple to worship in, but they had to pay taxes to Caesar and their priesthood had ties with Rome. They wanted to be free and were looking for a Messiah who would overthrow their enemies and set up the new and powerful Kingdom of David.
And here comes John, announcing a lamb. Talk about a letdown.
Symbol of Sacrifice
However, to Jews of the time — and the early Christians to whom St. John the Evangelist wrote his Gospel — the lamb was a bit more than a cute, fuzzy farm animal. The lamb was a symbol of sacrifice.
Since Moses’ time, Jews had offered unblemished lambs as the paschal lamb, the center of each year’s Passover feast. The blood of the first paschal lamb, put on the doors of their slave homes in Egypt, saved the Israelites from losing their first-born children as the avenging angel passed over Egypt. The lamb thus became the symbol that reminded every Jew of God’s salvation of and protective care for Israel.
Later on, in the temple at Jerusalem, lambs were among the animals offered by the priests as sin offerings. Clearly, we know that John referred to Jesus as the one who would be sacrificed to take away our sins: meaning that Jesus was the perfect and final sacrifice.
The Gospel of John was written last of the four Gospels, around the year 90 A.D. However, early Christians already understood the “Lamb of God” reference. The second reading for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time comes from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, which was written around 54 A.D. In the chapter just before the reading used this Sunday, Paul refers to Jesus as “our paschal lamb,” who “has been sacrificed” (1Cor 5:7).
Good shepherd and lambs
However, visual religious images of Christ as the paschal lamb did not develop as quickly in church history. It wasn’t until the Roman catacombs were built, which started around the end of the second century, that images of the paschal lamb appeared regularly. And, just a little bit earlier than those appeared, history saw the image of the Good Shepherd, carrying a lamb on his shoulder, in those same catacombs.
Msgr. Joseph Wilpert, a German priest and archaeologist (d. 1944), studied this Good Shepherd catacomb image and interpreted the sheep and lambs there as representing the souls of the dead and those in heaven. The Good Shepherd carried the lamb, the newly deceased, to heaven, Msgr. Wilpert said, where the other sheep already live. The “Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that this interpretation “is in harmony with an ancient liturgical prayer for the dead … ‘We pray God … having redeemed him by his death, freed him from sin and reconciled him with the Father, may he be to him the Good Shepherd and carry him on his shoulders.”
Other visual representations of Christ were common in the first centuries of the church. These included the fish, the peacock and the Chi-Rho (Christ’s monogram).
After the emperor Constantine accepted the Christian faith in the early fourth century, artistic images of the triumphant lamb became much more common in artwork. By the fifth century, visual representations of the lamb showed its head surrounded by the nimbus and, by the sixth century, the lamb was shown as enthroned.
The next step in religious imagery was showing the lamb with the cross, clearly marking the animal as an image of Christ and reminding us of his sacrifice.
The next step in art images came when the lamb was shown as pierced, with blood flowing from its wounded side. Constantine himself presented the Lateran Baptistery in Rome with a gold statue of a lamb pouring water from its side and standing between silver statues of Christ and John the Baptist.
The Catholic Encyclopedia points out a slightly later sixth-century, mosaic at the Vatican which shows the lamb standing on a throne at the foot of a cross. The side of this Lamb bleeds five streams, representing the five wounds of Christ.
Other familiar symbols of the Lamb of God show a lamb carrying the triumphal banner — usually white with a red cross — or lying upon a book with seven seals. The lamb on the book is a reference to the Book of Revelation (chapter 5), where the author tells of seeing a multi-horned, multi-eyed lamb which approaches the throne of God to open a scroll bearing seven seals. To this Lamb, the hymn is sung: “Worthy are you to receive the scroll and to break open its seals, for you were slain and with your blood you purchased for God those from every tribe and tongue, people and nation.”
This brings full circle the ministry of Jesus that began when John the Baptist pointed him out to the world as the “Lamb of God” so the first disciples turned and followed him.
Sources: The “Catholic Encyclopedia”; bible.org; “The Maryknoll Catholic Dictionary”; “The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism”; “Modern Catholic Dictionary”; “Mercer Dictionary of the Bible”; “The Collegeville Bible Commentary”; “Smith’s Bible Dictionary”; christianinconography.info; and “A Reader’s Guide to Orthodox Icons” at iconreader.wordpress.com