The Lamb of God
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo
Reflection on the Painting
In our painting by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, we see a young John the Baptist clothed in camel hair embracing the lamb, a symbol of Christ’s Sacrifice. There is a loving interaction between the two. The lamb has his right foot on John’s right arm. John’s left arm is pointing upwards towards heaven. In the bottom right corner we see John’s reed cross with a ribbon inscribed with the words of our Gospel reading today in Latin: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God’ / Ecce Agnus Dei”. By depicting Saint John the Baptist as a child, Murillo wanted to appeal to the viewer. The endearing image of a child would encourage the viewer to imitate a child-like state of innocence and purity.
When Saint John the Baptist called Jesus the Lamb of God, the Jewish people would have immediately understood the sacrificial nature of these words. There is the lamb and Isaac; also the Passover feast involved blood that would be shed and sprinkled on the door posts. Twice every day, morning and evening, in the Temple, for the burnt offering for sin, a lamb would be slain too. So, the image of a Sacrificial Lamb was one the Jewish people would be very familiar with.
Saint John says pointing at Jesus that ‘there is the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world’. Note that he mentions ‘sin’ and not ‘sins’. To use sin as a singular word, it implies that Jesus wants to root out and destroy sin as a whole, and not just the myriad of symptoms or various forms of sin. Also, by saying that Jesus came to take away the sin of the ‘world’ implies that Jesus came for the whole world, and not just for the Jewish people… We are invited in our reading, as so poignantly depicted in our painting, to behold and hold the Lamb of God and embrace Jesus’ Sacrifice for all of us.
John 1: 29-34
29“The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me’. 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel’. 32And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God’”.
Here we come to the second day of this momentous week in the life of Jesus. By this time his Baptism and his Temptations were past and He was about to set his hand to the work which He came into the world to do. The Baptist calls Jesus by that tremendous title which has become woven into the very language of devotion – The Lamb of God. when he used that title? There are at least four pictures which may well contribute to understand what was in John’s mind:
1. It may well have been that John was thinking of the Passover Lamb. The Passover Feast was not very far away. The ancient account of the Passover referred to the blood of the slain lamb which protected the houses of the Israelites on the night when they left Egypt. The blood of the lamb delivered them from destruction. The blood of the Passover Lamb delivered the Israelites in Egypt from death; and it may be that John was saying: There is a deliverance that only Jesus Christ can win for us. Paul too thought of Jesus as the Passover Lamb.
2. John was the son of a priest. He would know all the ritual of the Temple and its sacrifices. Every morning and every evening a lamb was sacrificed in the Temple for the sins of the people. So long as the Temple stood, this daily sacrifice was made. Even when the people were starving in war and in siege, they never omitted to offer the lamb until in A.D. 70 when the Temple was destroyed. It may be that John meant: “In the Temple a lamb is offered every night and every morning for the sins of the people: but Jesus will offer the only Sacrifice which can deliver us from sin”.
3. There are two great pictures of the lamb in the writings of the Prophets:
a. Jeremiah writes: “But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter”.
b. Isaiah wrote about the one who was brought “like a lamb to the slaughter”.
Both these great Prophets had the vision of one who by his sufferings and his sacrifice, meekly and lovingly borne, would redeem his people. Maybe John is saying: “Your Prophets dreamed of the one who was to love and suffer and die for the people; that one is come”.
4. There is a fourth picture which would be very familiar to the Jews, although very strange to us. Between the Old and New Testaments there were the days of the great struggles of the Maccabees. In those days the lamb, and especially the horned lamb, was the symbol of a great conqueror. Judas Maccabaeus is so described, as are Samuel and David and Solomon. The lamb –strange as it may sound to us- stood for the conquering champion of God. It may well be that this is no picture of gentle and helpless weakness, but rather a picture of conquering majesty and power. Jesus was the champion of God who fought with sin and mastered it in single contest.
There is sheer wonder in this phrase, “The Lamb of God”. It haunted the writer of Book of Revelation. He used it twenty-nine times. So, it became one of the most precious titles of Christ. In one word it sums up the love, the sacrifice, the suffering and the triumph of Christ.
John says that he did not know Jesus. Now John was a relation of Jesus, and he must have been acquainted with him. What John is saying is not that he did not know who Jesus was, but that he did not know what Jesus was. It had suddenly been revealed to him that Jesus was none other than the Son of God. Once again, John makes clear what his only function was. It was to point people to Christ. He was nothing and Christ was everything. He claimed no greatness and no place for himself; he was only the man who, as it were, drew back the curtain and left Jesus occupying the centre of the stage.
The Coming of the Spirit
Something had happened at the Baptism of Jesus which had convinced John beyond all doubt that Jesus was the Son of God.
As the Fathers of the Church saw Centuries ago, it was something which only the eye of the mind could see. But John saw it and was convinced.
In Palestine the dove was a sacred bird. It was not hunted, and it was not eaten. Philo noticed the great number of doves at Ascalon, because it was not permitted to catch and kill them, and they were tame.
In Genesis we read of the creative Spirit of God moving upon the face of the waters. The Rabbis used to say that the Spirit of God moved and fluttered like a dove over the ancient chaos breathing order and beauty into it. The picture of the dove was one which the Jews knew and loved.
It was at his Baptism that the Spirit came down upon Jesus with power. When John the Baptist spoke of the Spirit coming upon Jesus, he must have been thinking in Jewish terms. What then was the Jewish idea of the Spirit?
The Jewish word for Spirit is Ruach, the word which means wind. To the Jew there were always three basic ideas of the Spirit.
The Spirit was power, power like a mighty rushing wind;
The Spirit was life, the very dynamic of the existence of man;
The Spirit was God;
The power and the life of the Spirit were beyond mere human achievement and attainment;
The coming of the Spirit into our life was the coming of God.
Above all, it was the Spirit who controlled and inspired the Prophets. We may say that the Spirit of God did three things:
First, He brought the truth of God to us.
Second, He gave us the power to recognise truth when they saw it.
Third, He gave us the ability and the courage to preach that truth to all peoples. To the Jew the Spirit was God coming into our life.
The Baptism of Jesus was a Baptism of the Spirit. If we remember the Jewish conception of the Spirit, we can say that when the Spirit takes possession of a person, certain things happen:
Life is illumined. There comes the knowledge of God and God’s will. The person knows what the purpose of God is, what life means, where duty lies. Some of God’s wisdom and light has come into him.
Life is strengthened. Knowledge with power is a haunting and frustrating thing. But the Spirit gives us not only knowledge to know the right, but also strength and the power to do it. The Spirit gives us a triumphant adequacy to cope with life.
Life is purified. The Baptism of Christ with the Spirit was to be a Baptism of fire. The dross of evil things, the alloy of the lower things, the base admixture is burned away until we are is clean and pure.
Often our prayers for the Spirit are a kind of theological and liturgical formality; but when we know that for which we are praying, these prayers become a desperate cry from the heart.
“Jesus, Lamb of God, when you walked this earth you did not consider heavenly equality,
though that was yours to choose, but took the role of servant, and in humility and obedience allowed the rough nails of our sin to be hammered into your flesh for the sake of our salvation. And so it is that we acknowledge you as Lord of all, to the glory of God the Father, Son and Spirit, Three”.
o To be baptized with the Holy Spirit is to be immersed in and live by God's powerful Love. We pray for a deep realization of this mystery.
o Although he prepared the way for Jesus, John acknowledges that he did not know who to expect. As I do my best, in my way, to prepare the way for Jesus, I cannot always know just what to be ready for. John remained active and vigilant. We pray that we may find the balance between keeping occupied in God’s service without letting our occupations overwhelm us.
o “I saw the spirit descending from heaven”. Each one of us has also received the same Spirit in our baptism. It was that Spirit which inspired Jesus in all his work. May the same Spirit inspire us to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and join with him in his work to build the Kingdom.
o Reflecting on this scripture passage, we might hear Jesus say to us the words He says to every disciple, “And you, who do you say that I am?” Let us tell him how we see and feel about him, and then let us listen to how much He appreciates us for remaining with him as our companion.
o Lord, whenever I hear of some atrocious barbarisms by one of our race, and of the injustice and pain which people suffer through others’ wickedness, I remember that this is the world you entered, the burden you took on yourself. You had a strong back to carry the evil that is in the world.
o John knew who Jesus is, but what Jesus is was suddenly revealed. He sees the Spirit descend and remain on Jesus. The Spirit takes up permanent abode in him. As we move through today can we are aware that my life is pervaded with the Spirit of God.
 John 2: 13: “The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem”. Exodus 12: 3-4: “Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. 4 If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbour in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it”.  1 Corinthians 5: 7: “Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened, for our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed”.  Exodus 29: 38-42  Jeremiah 11: 19  Isiah 53: 7  Luke 1: 36: “And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren”.  Genesis 1:2: “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters”.  Micah 3:8: “But as for me, I am filled with power, with the spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin”. Isaiah 59:21: “My Spirit which is upon you and my words which I have put in your mouth”, Isaiah 61: 1: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings”. Ezekiel 36: 26.27: “A new heart I will give you and a new Spirit I will put within you ... I will put my Spirit within you”. Matthew 3:11; Luke 3: 16: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”.