Lamb of God, Agnus Dei,
Painted by Francisco de Zubarán (1598-1664), 
Painted circa 1635,
Oil on canvas
© Prado Museum, Madrid

Lamb of God, Agnus Dei,
Painted by Francisco de Zubarán (1598-1664), 
Painted circa 1635,
Oil on canvas
© Prado Museum, Madrid

Gospel of 3 January 2020

The lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.

John 1:29-34

Seeing Jesus coming towards him, John said, ‘Look, there is the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. This is the one I spoke of when I said: A man is coming after me who ranks before me because he existed before me. I did not know him myself, and yet it was to reveal him to Israel that I came baptising with water.’ John also declared, ‘I saw the Spirit coming down on him from heaven like a dove and resting on him. I did not know him myself, but he who sent me to baptise with water had said to me, “The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and rest is the one who is going to baptise with the Holy Spirit.” Yes, I have seen and I am the witness that he is the Chosen One of God.’

Reflection on the Painting

We have often heard the words ‘Lamb of God’ and mention these same words at every mass. But what does it actually mean that Jesus is the lamb of God? First point to be made is that the names of God that are mentioned in the Old and New Testaments tell us important information about who God is. Animal sacrifices are found all throughout the Old Testament. These blood offerings acted as a temporary covering for sin. Main passage to look at is Leviticus 4:35: ‘They shall remove all the fat, just as the fat is removed from the lamb of the fellowship offering, and the priest shall burn it on the altar on top of the food offerings presented to the Lord. In this way the priest will make atonement for them for the sin they have committed, and they will be forgiven’.

So the main purpose of animal sacrifices was sanctification and forgiveness, to put ourselves ‘right’ again with God. These various sacrificial practices in Jewish culture often involved lambs. Lambs are known for their attractive white coats, and white is a symbol of purity and cleanliness. The soft wooly texture is symbolic for God’s kindness (to forgive us). This is why John the Baptist in today’s reading calls Jesus the Lamb of God, as Christ was perfect and free of sin. He was perfectly pure and kind. And just like the lambs were sacrificed for sin… so would Christ ultimately be sacrificed.

Our painting by Francisco de Zubaran, shows a white coated lamb on a grey table against a contrasting background. The lamb is between eight and ten months old, the time for a new life to grow inside a mother’s womb. Still alive, it lies with bound feet in an unmistakably sacrificial posture. The pose also reminds me of some of the images of early martyred saints. There are no other symbolic iconographic elements here except the lamb itself… No need for anything else… just the Agnus Dei…

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