3 January – Look!

The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’
(John 1.29-34)

And then he saw him, coming through the crowds. He had been watching the people, expecting Jesus to be among them and all of a sudden there he was. Like that first pre-natal meeting their hearts must have leapt in recognition of each other. The forerunner, the preparer of the way, John, the wild prophet in the wilderness, saw the one for whom he had been preparing the people.

But instead of some great cry of greeting, instead of some declaration of ‘Here he is – I told you he was coming’ the Evangelist gives us other words from the Baptist.

‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’

The Lamb of God in a 9th century fresco in Rome

The Lamb of God in a 9th century fresco in Rome

Those words in Latin ‘Ecce Agnus Dei’, ‘This is the Lamb of God’ are the words traditionally used as we are invited to move to the altar and receive Holy Communion. The priest holds the host before the people as the words are said, our attention is drawn in a powerful way to the bread that is being held for us to see, the bread that is the Body of Christ.

I was taught to pray by my mother. Each day, before we went to sleep, ended with some prayers, mostly intercessory and, of course, commending ourselves to the love of God. But Mum insisted that we put our hands together and closed our eyes. According to her that was the way to pray, that was the position one should adopt for prayer. And that was reinforced in Sunday School and at day school. ‘Put your hands together and close your eyes … Let us pray’ said the Headmistress. There we all were in the assembly hall, sitting cross legged, eyes closed, hands together.

'Hands together, close your eyes.'

‘Hands together, close your eyes.’

It was good training of course because what Mum and the rest of those teaching me were saying was, don’t get distracted whilst you’re praying. Hands together stops little ones fidgeting; eyes closed stops little ones looking. But go to the catacombs in Rome and you will be shown early Christian frescos showing another way of praying, standing up, arms stretched out, hands lifted up. It looks much more alert than the ranks of the obedient unseeing kids in our school!

But this moment of presentation, of call, of recognition in the Eucharist is definitely not one when you should have your eyes closed. This is an ‘eyes wide open’ moment in the liturgy. The priest shows us the host and there is a command to look, to recognise and to respond. Whatever the words are in the liturgy we are familiar with ‘This is ..’, ‘Behold …’ , even the Anglican ‘Jesus is …’ (which conveniently, for some Anglicans, side steps the thorny issue of whether the priest is talking about the host they are holding or Jesus in general!) we are called to look and to recognise. And that was what John the Baptist was doing, there in the wilderness, by the Jordan, as Jesus steps out from the crowd and into public recognition and public ministry.

Like the compere at the Royal Variety Performance at the Palladium, as they announce the main act they step back into the wings. This moment is the beginning of John stepping back, his job is almost done. A couple of chapters later in St John’s Gospel, John the Baptist speaking to his own disciples about Jesus says

‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’
(John 3.30)

John steps to one side and the Lamb moves into the centre of the stage.

That image, of course, of Jesus as the Lamb of God is one of the most powerful and enduring. It speaks to us of the sacrifice that will be offered by the one for whom we have been Bethlehem bound, the one for whom shepherds left their flocks. William Blake wrote that most beautiful poem, hauntingly set to music by the late Sir John Tavener, in his collection ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’. The collection is made up of mirror images of poems in the two sections. ‘The Lamb’ mirrors that other great poem ‘The Tyger’. But his poem ‘The Lamb’ reflects so beautifully the intimate relationship that we have with the Lamb of God to whom John points.

Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed,
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee.
He is called by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild;
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are called by His name.
Little Lamb, God bless thee!
Little Lamb, God bless thee!

 The Christ Child Riding on a Lamb, by William Blake

The Christ Child Riding on a Lamb, by William Blake

There is a time to close ones eyes and pray but there are times to look and see and pray and not miss the Lamb in the crowds.

Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, grant us peace.

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