“Look, Mom,” my 6yo Son, Hero, whisper-exclaims as he snuggles into my arm, “It’s your favorite part of Mass!”
The priest elevates the host, proclaiming, “Behold the Lamb of God! Behold him who takes away the sins of the world.”
That part of Mass gets me every time.
Jesus’s title “Lamb of God” is one of the most succinct and moving summaries of our Catholic Faith. It has so much historical context, and so many radical implications. It’s a culmination and fulfillment of prophecies, and a door opening to wider understanding.
Its proclamation in the Mass is perfectly placed, and its original proclamation in the Bible even more so.
I’m not a theologian or a Biblical scholar, so I may not be able to connect all the dots, or have a perfect understanding – but I’m still filled with awe and amazement.
I don’t know if I’m able to communicate, in mere words, the beauty, intricacy, and importance of the phrase, “Lamb of God,” but I’m sure going to try.
The Historical Context of the Paschal Lamb
Where do we get the notion of a lamb as anything other than sheep that roam and eat and say baa? How did this evolve into a symbol so vital to our faith?
It begins way back in Old Testament history.
The Hebrew people, through a series of circumstances, end up in Egypt – as slaves. They suffer this oppression for many years, waiting and praying for their deliverer.
We have negotiations, and sticks that turn into snakes, and finally a series of plagues. The last plague being the worst of all – death to all the firstborn sons in the land.
But God provides a special way for his people to be spared from this awful plague. In Exodus chapter 12 you can read the story of the first Passover meal, in which a lamb is slain, prepared, and eaten – and its blood is smeared on the doorway of the houses.
Each house marked with this blood is saved from the death that spreads throughout the land. Every other house falls is struck with this great sorrow.
Pharaoh relents and lets the people go.
After this, the lamb reminds the Hebrew people of the way they were saved from death and from slavery in Egypt.
They continue to celebrate the Passover meal year after year, as a memorial of this event. And as time passes, the slaying of the lamb takes on new symbolic meanings: atonement for sins, peace offerings.
It’s a prefigurement of the Messiah – the Redeemer promised to save us from death and the slavery of sin that entered the world with the sin of our first parents: Adam and Eve.
Jesus is Revealed as the Lamb of God
When we read the Bible, we have the benefit of knowing who Jesus is, right from the very beginning. But we have to remember that most of the people at that time had no clue who he was.
Very few were in the know.
John the Baptist was one of the people who was. That smarty-pants little baby knew who Jesus was before he was even born.
So he grows up to be the great and final prophet of the Messiah. His job is different from all the other prophets: not just to say, “Waaiiiit fooor iiiitt…” but finally, “He’s here!”
John the Baptist – that smarty-pants little baby knew who Jesus was before he was even born. So he grows up to be the great and final prophet of the Messiah. His message is not just “Waaiiiit fooor iiiitt…” but finally, “He’s here!” Tweet this.
In all four Gospels, we see an account of John pointing towards Jesus. But in the Gospel of John, he does this in a very moving way. “Behold the Lamb,” he says.
The Lamb – that saves us from death.
The Lamb – that frees us from slavery.
The Lamb – that takes away our sins.
The Jewish people were very familiar with the historical significance of the lamb. They would know the implications John the Baptist is going for here.
Jesus is the long awaited Messiah. He’s the promised Redeemer. He’s the one who has come to save us from our sins.
John’s Gospel: The Eucharist and the Divinity of Jesus
I was listening to an episode of Catholic Answers recently, that gave me an insight about John the Baptist’s “Lamb of God” title appearing only in John’s Gospel – and not elsewhere.
In that episode, Tim Staples discusses how John’s Gospel was written in response to two heresies. One claimed that the Eucharist was only symbolic, and the other denied Jesus’ divinity.
John’s Gospel lays the hammer down on these two heresies in the very first chapter.
When John recounts John the Baptist calling Jesus the “Lamb of God,” he’s setting the stage for understanding the institution of the Eucharist. Jesus is the Lamb!
Jesus is the meal. He is the sacrifice. We consume him, and he frees us from our slavery to sin, he frees us from death.
But he’s not just “the Lamb,” he’s the Lamb of God.
John’s Gospel was written in response to two heresies. One claimed that the Eucharist was only symbolic, and the other denied Jesus’s divinity. John’s Gospel lays the hammer down on these two heresies in the very first chapter. Tweet this.
John (the Gospel writer) sets the stage for the whole Lamb of God thing with the “Word was God” thing. This is another theological implication about the Messiah that the Jewish people should recognize from the ancient prophesies.
John is very clear that Jesus is not just the Messiah who fulfills these prophesies – but he’s God, himself, come down to earth to reveal himself to us and restore us to grace.
So when John (the Baptist) says “Lamb of God,” in John (the evangelist)’s Gospel, he’s not just talking about some dude who happens to fulfill the prophecies. This dude is also God. And God is truly present in the Eucharist.
The Call to Repentance
I love it that John the Baptist is the one who announces Jesus as the Lamb of God in this way.
John’s no fluffernutter. He’s no promoter of feel-good-theology. John is not afraid to call us to hard action.
“Turn and repent” is his theme.
He even calls out the big boss guy (Herod) on his adulterous relationship with his brother’s wife.
John’s repentance message fits in so perfectly with the idea of the lamb as a sin offering. When he identifies Jesus as the Lamb, he’s letting us know that we should run to this guy. That this guy will take away our sins.
He’s calling us, right from the very beginning of the Gospel, to accept our Salvation in Jesus – and all that entails.
John’s no fluffernutter. He’s no promoter of feel-good-theology. John is not afraid to call us to hard action. “Turn and repent” is his theme. Tweet this.
As we move through the Gospel, we’ll find out more about just how this Salvation is acquired for us – through Jesus’s passion, his death and Resurrection. By uniting ourselves to his sacrifice in taking up our own crosses. By receiving his gift of self through the reception of the Eucharist.
But it all stems from repentance, and that’s where Johnny B. begins.
We can’t accept our Savior without first accepting that we need to be saved. And John’s not afraid to call us out on that.
Jesus Breaks Through our Resistance to Salvation
In the lines leading up to John the Baptist’s “Lamb of God” moment, there’s something else that moves me.
It’s John’s resistance when approached by Jesus.
“I’m not worthy,” he says. In other Gospel accounts, John the Baptist tells Jesus (paraphrasing), “You should be baptizing me, not the other way around.”
John approaches Jesus with humble resistance, stemming from his knowledge of his unworthiness before God.
It reminds me of the moment from the Last Supper (John 13) when Jesus is washing his disciples’ feet. And his buddy, Peter, tries to stop him: “Lord, you will never wash my feet.” Peter, too, puts up this resistance to Jesus’s plans.
Not a resistance born out of disobedience, but a resistance born out of acknowledgement of who Jesus is.
Jesus responds to this resistance – from both John the Baptist and Peter, with gentle insistence: It must be this way, let me serve you, let me give you this gift.
The lamb is an animal that doesn’t resist. It accepts slaughter without a fight. Jesus, the Lamb of God, breaks through our resistance. He teaches us how to submit ourselves to salvation.
He breaks through all the walls we put up, all the ways we fight his grace.
He calls us, gently, to allow him to do this. To allow him to save us.
Both John the Baptist and Peter respond to Jesus’s gentle insistence. They surrender themselves to his divine plan.
The Lamb of God at Mass
At Mass, when the priest holds up the host and proclaims, “This is the Lamb of God,” there’s so much behind it.
That one moment captures the entire story of Salvation History.
It hits me all at once, and in different ways. I look at that elevated host and it takes my breath away.
Jesus is the one whose coming was prophesied in hundreds of different ways. He’s the fulfillment of all the prophesies. He’s the real deal.
He lived and died and rose again thousands of years ago. Yet he’s still with us today – in this tiny Host, a great mystery.
He is my meal, my food. He feeds and nourishes me through the Eucharist. Through this food, he heals and saves my soul. He forgives my sins.
Yet he is God. Infinite and eternal and beyond my understanding.
He’s here. Right here in Mass, in front of me. Behold him. Raise your eyes and look at him.
He’s not far off, or unattainable. He’s in our midst.
This tiny Host, a great mystery. He is my meal, my food. Yet he is God. He’s right here in Mass, in front of me. Behold him. Tweet this.
He wants to free me from slavery – slavery to sin. He wants to free me from death. He’s the one who can make me fully alive.
If only I let go of my resistance, and accept this gift he offers me.
My Response to the Lamb of God: Lord, I am Not Worthy
At the Mass, we respond to the invitation to the Supper of the Lamb with the words: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word an my soul shall be healed.”
These words echo those of the Roman centurion in Matthew 8. The centurion asks for healing for his servant, and Jesus promises to come heal him.
The centurion, like John the Baptist, and like Peter, puts up humble resistance. He knows his sinfulness, his unworthiness.
But at the same time that he acknowledges his unworthiness to receive Jesus, the centurion doesn’t reject Jesus. Rather, he places a great faith in his word and his promises.
And Jesus praises and rewards his great faith.
At Mass, when I say these words, I remember the centurion. I remember John the Baptist and Peter.
Inspired by their humility, I acknowledge my sinfulness, my lowliness, my unworthiness before God.
And at the same time, I submit myself to Jesus’s gentle insistence. No, I’m not worthy to receive him. But he wants to come to me anyway.
And I have faith in his gift.
I accept his offer of salvation. His self sacrifice. I accept the healing he holds out to me.
I accept him into my body in the Holy Eucharist.
With a smile, I put my arm around my 6yo son as I look with love on the Lamb of God. That host is everything.
It’s the story of my salvation. It is my favorite part of Mass.
Sign up to get more great prayer resources delivered to your inbox: