3 January [Holy Name of Jesus]
The next day John 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 baptising 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 baptise with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’
John the Baptist seemed evasive about his own identity, but he was quite sure about the identity of Jesus, even though he had to admit, “I myself did not know him.” This is a remarkable admission, seeing that Jesus was his cousin. Clearly, he had known him in some sense. He recognised his appearance and knew his name and many facts about him. He must be referring now to a deeper identity, hidden from him before. It was God, “the one who sent me,” who revealed the deeper identity of Jesus to the Baptist. The Spirit was the mark of his identity.
Spirit cannot be thought, but it can be imagined. The images here are ‘dove’ and ‘lamb’. These images point to the Spirit but, unlike thoughts, they are not mistaken for it. Both images have a rich background in the Scriptures.
Like all images they have a variety of meanings, but the dove stood very often as a symbol of love. In the Song of Songs the beloved is called “my dove.” Israel is called the Lord’s dove: “Do not give Israel, your dove, to the hawk” (Psalm 73). The dove is also a symbol of innocence: “innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). In all four gospels the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism is imaged as a dove (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32). As the Church would later express it, the Spirit’s very identity is the love between the Father and the Son.
The image of lamb is everywhere present in the Old and New Testaments. It usually refers to a sacrificial victim. Jesus is the Passover lamb. You remember also the lamb provided for Abraham (Genesis 22:8), the ewe of the sin offering (Leviticus 4:32-35), and the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. In Revelation Jesus is referred to 28 times as the lamb.
Jesus refers to his disciples as lambs; he said to Peter, “Feed my lambs” (John 21:15). I may have a recognisable identity, such as lawyer, banker, even prize fighter; but my deeper identity is that I am a lamb and a dove!
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