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.”
Ecce Agnus Dei qui tollit peccata mundi (Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.) This was John’s proclamation when he saw Jesus approaching him in today’s reading. After the Spirit of the Lord had descended on Jesus, John knew that Jesus was the “Son of God” and the savior of the world.
When John—Jesus’s older cousin—identifies him as “the Lamb of God,” he says that Jesus “existed before” him. If you were present among the crowd, surely you would think, “What a bizarre thing to say about a younger man.” However, John was correct in saying this, for Jesus existed before all time. This was neither self-depreciation for John nor empty praise for Jesus; John was speaking out of true conviction from “the one” who sent him to baptize in the first place. In his own words, John says, “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.’” And that is all John needed to believe that Jesus was the Son of God born before all ages.
Throughout sacred Scripture, God is referred to in many ways. For example, he is called El Shaddai, or “God Almighty” (Genesis 17:1, 49:25), the Lion of Judah (see Genesis 49:9), and the Alpha and Omega (see Revelation 21:6, 22:13). These are all impressive and powerful titles, but in today’s reading John calls him a lamb. What does a lamb have to do with God? A lot. The lamb was associated with Abraham’s sacrifice in place of Isaac and was the key sacrificial animal in the Passover (see Exodus 12:3).
Recall when Isaac asked his father, “‘Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’ Abraham said, ‘God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son’” (Genesis 22:7–8). As the story continues, God provides a ram for Abraham to sacrifice. Note well that Abraham does not sacrifice a lamb. Abraham’s sacrifice is not completed until God provides himself as the lamb with his death on the cross.
Likewise, the lamb’s blood in the Passover saved the people of Israel from the angel of death and from slavery in Egypt (see Exodus 12:3). The Passover event was a foreshadowing of Christian baptism, where we overcome death by participation in the Paschal Mystery. We are adopted by God and forgiven our sins.
In the silence of your prayer today, reflect on the title “lamb of God.” Why is the all-powerful God associated with a lamb? Then thank the Lamb of God for taking away your sins and giving you new life.