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Friday, January 17, 2020

The Lion and the Lamb - 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

John 1:29-34
John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said,
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
He is the one of whom I said,
‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me
because he existed before me.’
I did not know him,
but the reason why I came baptizing with water
was that he might be made known to Israel.”
John testified further, saying,
“I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven
and remain upon him.
I did not know him,
but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me,
‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain,
he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’
Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.”


Why do we call Jesus a lamb? Why does John the Baptist, upon seeing Jesus, shout to the crowd, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”? How exactly is Jesus a lamb? And how do lambs take away sin?

For an answer, we need to go way back in time. Nearly 700 years before Jesus, the prophet Isaiah recorded a series of poems about a mysterious figure called the “suffering servant of the Lord.” In the fourth and final poem, we read about how this servant will undergo agony and humiliation: “He was despised and rejected.... He was oppressed and he was afflicted.” Yet, because of this, the suffering servant will receive honor, prosperity, and life (Is 53).

What is interesting is that this “suffering servant” is strangely described as a lamb that is led to the slaughter, a sheep that before its shearers is dumb” (Is 53:7). On top of that, this lamb is supposed to “make himself an offering for sin.” Indeed he is supposed to “bear the sins of many” (Is 53:10-11). 

So when John the Baptist sees Jesus and shouts to the crowd: behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, we now know the reference. John is recalling Isaiah’s suffering servant — the one who will be despised and rejected, oppressed and afflicted. The one who will bear the sins of many. 

That’s all fine and good. But is there something yet to learn from the image of the lamb itself? Why, of all things, a lamb

A lamb is nonviolent. A lamb is meek. They are followers, not leaders; hunted and never hunters. They do not defend their territory. They are silent when they feel pain. This is the exact opposite of another image the scriptures sometimes use to describe Jesus: the lion

In the last book of the Bible — the Book of Revelation — we see an extraordinary apocalyptic vision of heaven’s throne. We see people weeping because none of the angels are powerful enough to open a certain mysterious scroll. “Weep not!” a strange figure announces, the Lion of Judah has conquered so that he can open the scroll!” (Rev 5:5)

But when we finally see the scroll opened, it is not by a lion. It is opened, rather, by “a slain lamb.” At that moment, the text says there broke out in heaven “the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice: ‘worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing’” (Rev 5:11-12).

The slain lamb, of course, is Jesus. He is also the lion. Indeed, Jesus is both lamb and lion. He is, like a lamb, hunted. He is hunted by our sins. He is oppressed and afflicted, bowed down and killed by them — “like a lamb led to the slaughter.” Instead of defending his territory, he “turns to them his other cheek also” (Mt 5:39). Like a lamb, he is silent through the pain. 

But it is precisely in this that he is also like a lion. Jesus once said, “my power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9). It’s one of the most startling things he ever said. “Although he was crucified through weakness,” St. Paul would go on to write, “[Jesus] lives by God’s power (2 Cor. 13:4). He was killed, yes, but he lives. He was raised. The lion-like strength of God is revealed most vividly in the places of human weakness. Indeed, Jesus was only raised by way of a human death. He was a lion by being a lamb. It is the same with us. The place in your life where you are most weak and broken is precisely the place where you are most in contact with God’s mercy, with God’s strength. “When I am weak,” Paul said, “then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10).

He is lamb and he is lion; he is death and he is resurrection. He cannot be resurrected unless he dies; he cannot be glorified unless he is humiliated. The lion needs the lamb. In the Book of Revelation, only the wounded lamb was powerful enough to open and read from the scroll of God. In life, how true it is that only the soul that’s been wounded can truly grasp what it means to live well, to love, to be merciful.

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