“Behold the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29)
We perhaps shouldn’t be too surprised that Sheep and Lambs feature so frequently in Scripture and particularly in the teaching of Jesus.
Already in the Old Testament we hear of the ram which is caught in the thicket and which is sacrificed in the place of Isaac. It is the blood of the lamb which is smeared on the lintels of the houses of the Hebrews so that they are protected from the Angel of Death, and are able to escape from slavery in Egypt. We hear the prophet Ezekiel compare God and his people to the sheep and a shepherd.
And in the New Testament, especially in the Gospels, references to sheep and lambs abound. The Shepherds are keeping watch over the sheep when Jesus is born. Jesus tells the parable of the shepherd who took great risks to rescue the lost sheep. The crowds who come to hear Jesus are described as being “like sheep without a shepherd”.
It is only natural, perhaps that we have all these examples, and more, because, after all, this was a land and a culture which was sustained by farming and the keeping of livestock. Just as Scriptures mentions vines and vineyards, sowing seeds and gather grain, so we would expect to sheep and shepherds to be frequent images and examples.
But there is more to it than just this. The shepherds were in the fields watching their flocks by night, because the ewes were lambing. As the Lambs were being born, so Jesus himself was born. Years later, while other Lambs were being sacrificed in the temple for the Passover, Jesus was being sacrificed on the cross. St Paul tells us that “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us”. And in today’s Gospel - from St John, a Gospel which has no story of shepherds and mangers and angels and kings - after 28 verses of preparation and anticipation, Jesus makes his very first appearance, and the Baptist proclaims instantly “Behold, the Lamb of God”. Into this Gospel too, the Lamb is born.
Why a lamb? Well, because a lamb is newly born, and innocent, and pure. Because it is the blood of the Lamb which saves the people from slavery, from injustice, from captivity. Because lambs were destined for sacrifice. As Christ is destined for sacrifice.
And so we are reminded of this time and time again during the Mass. Christ is “Lord God, Lamb of God, son of Father”. He is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”, and then, just as he comes to dwell amongst us, just as he is born again on the altar, just before we receive his life into ours, we are told: ‘Behold the Lamb of God, behold him him who takes away the sins of the world!”