It is to the Old Testament that we must look to begin to understand Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. The lamb occupies an important place in the story of the people of Israel. In the first few pages of their sacred text we encounter Abel, son of Adam and Eve, offering a lamb in sacrifice to the Lord. An atonement sacrifice of lambs would become part of the daily ritual of the Temple in Jerusalem.
When God asks Abraham to go to up a mountain and offer his son Isaac as a burnt offering, the unsuspecting Isaac asks his father “where is the lamb?” Abraham’s responds “God will provide.” Abraham’s words are ultimately fulfilled in the Person of Jesus when John the Baptist points to Him and says “Here is the Lamb of God”.
The prophet Isaiah speaks of a suffering servant of God, a man who would be despised and rejected by men and wounded for the transgressions of the people. He compares this suffering servant to a lamb that is led to the slaughter. This prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus; the Lamb Who is sacrificed on the Cross which took place on the feast of the Passover.
The Passover Feast recalls the Exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt when they left their slavery in Egypt. On the eve of their departure lambs had to be slaughtered and eaten. The blood of those lambs had to be smeared on the houses of the Hebrews so that the Angel of Death would pass over them. The blood of the Passover Lamb delivered the Israelites in Egypt from death in Egypt.
At the time of Jesus, the yearly remembrance of Passover still involved the slaughtering of lambs in the Temple. John the Baptist was the son of a priest, Zechariah, who would have participated in the daily Temple sacrifice. When John describes Jesus as the Lamb of God he pointed to the definitive sacrifice that would deliver humanity from everlasting death. What also becomes clear in the story is that this Jewish Messiah, this servant of the chosen people, would be a Savior not just for the people of Israel, but for all people. He would take away the sins of the world.
Until Jesus was born, the task of the chosen people of the Old Testament, as the first reading points out, was to act as a light to the nations. And this task of being a light to the nations is one that we Christians must continue. We have just emerged from Christmastide with its great celebrations of the Nativity, the Epiphany, and the Baptism of the Lord. We have seen Jesus revealed to His own people – Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, Simeon, Anna. We have seen Jesus revealed to the Gentiles, represented by the Magi.
We, who through the gift of our Christian Faith, recognize Jesus as the Son God who takes away the sins of the world, have the ongoing mission, like John the Baptist, of pointing out Jesus to the world. Strengthened by the grace given to us in the Eucharist, the sacrament which makes present the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, we must go out as signs and instruments of the love, mercy, and forgiveness that Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, offers to all peoples of the world.