Thought for the Week 16 January 2011
The Lamb of God
If one were recommending a gospel to an enquirer, it might make sense not to start with St. John.· It is often said that his is the most spiritual gospel. It is also the least realistic.· By that is meant that it more like an icon: it makes a demand of us rather than asking us to observe and make a judgement. More frontally than the other gospels, it invites our submission.
So, on Sunday we had John the Baptist declaring baldly as Jesus appears Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the World’.· What is our innocent enquirer to make of this? Like a Russian or Greek icon we have full in the face, the mysterious claim, marked by symbolism which we must learn to read even as we are stopped in our tracks. And while John’s Jewish readers whom he immediately challenges, could pick up immediately what he is about, we may find it harder.
A lamb is the centrepiece of the Jewish feast of Passover, celebrated each year in memory of their liberation from slavery in Egypt, a feast moreover at which they open the door to allow the Messiah, the expected Saviour, to enter.· Later in the gospel St. John will set the Passover as happening, not on the Thursday of the last Supper but on the Friday, the day of his death. He plays fast and loose with his colleagues’ historical accounts by implying that Jesus is the true lamb, slaughtered at the Passover. Jesus then is the bringer of liberation, who in his setting us free is utterly consumed; he is also the one led like a lamb to the slaughter as we are sheep that have gone astray.·But then St. John seems to get it wrong. It was not a lamb that took the sins of the Jewish people away; the animal upon whom they laid their hands before sending it off into the desert symbolically carrying their sins with it was a goat, a scapegoat.· He knows what he is doing: Jesus is that too, the innocent who took upon himself the punishment due to us. What injustice! How could we get away with it? Only by our becoming one with him, his body.
Now all of this may seem like the explanation of a joke; the laughter drains away when we have to have it explained to us because we didn’t get it first time.· But just as the point of a joke is to let us see something in a different way, so the point of John’s gospel account is to invite us into a mystery. This is not good man Jesus. This is a mystery before whom· we are invited to kneel in silence. Just as an icon is meant to draw us into its depths,· to present us with something which ordinary words cannot encompass, so St. John wants us to receive the block effect of this,· the man who is God incarnate.