Behold the Lamb of God

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by Lisa Bingham –

Francisco de Zurbaran, Agnus Dei c 1635/40–Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain

Last year, my husband and I had the privilege of visiting Spain. We took a day to explore the famous Prado Museum in Madrid and were in awe of the works by Picasso, Dali, Goya, El Greco and other Spanish masters. But when we entered an elegant room filled with amazing wall-sized paintings of Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection and ascension into heaven, it was a small and modestly positioned painting that caught and held my attention: Agnus Dei by Francisco Zurbarán.

I was riveted by the life-likeness of this small animal, singled out, alone, and helpless. Somehow, this painting of an innocent and defenseless lamb prepared for sacrifice brought me to tears as I stood there without a Kleenex in the Prado. Each and every time I have recalled my reaction to this painting or tried to describe it to others, I have again been reduced to silent tears.

Why is it that this unassuming, unadorned creature reaches my soul in a way that no human likeness of Jesus ever has? I cannot say. Perhaps it is that to represent the physical Christ seems nearly impossible to do, arrogant even; it is so personal to the artist. Maybe it’s because I love a really good metaphor—and surely this is the ultimate metaphor. Or perhaps it is because John the Baptist refers to Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” in John 1:29, and the sacrificial aspect of Christ’s death on the cross is made so real when I view this painting that it takes my breath away.

As John recognized Jesus as the Messiah prophesied in the book of Isaiah, the painter, Zurbarán, created a word picture on canvas: “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). This is what I see in Agnus Dei.

As a young person, I was a bit troubled by Isaiah’s prophetic description of the Savior of mankind. I found it vaguely embarrassing that God’s own Son would stand there before Pilate and say nothing. It seemed weak and passive and everything that was less than attractive in a hero. For me then, (and am I not still sometimes too quick to speak?) it just didn’t make sense not to mount a brilliant case of self-defense, especially when Jesus was so clearly innocent of all wrongdoing.

I now realize that had the Prince of Peace spoken out at that time, none could have withstood his truth. I now know that Jesus chose to be silent, bound and defenseless in that moment, that he chose to follow the will of his father—all the way to Calvary—for you and for me. It is this intentional sacrifice of love that speaks to me so eloquently as I meditate on the painting of Agnus Dei—Lamb of God.

In the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, the sacrifice of Christ is never far from the minds of those worshiping in their sanctuaries, as the suffering Lord is viewed upon the cross at all times. In The Salvation Army and other Protestant churches, we rejoice that the cross is now empty; that once and for all, Jesus rose on the third day, victorious over sin to set us free. And yet, both of these aspects of Christ are equally significant for the believer. We cannot have Easter without Good Friday. Good Friday without Easter would be just another sad day in history. Instead, the Lamb of God became the Risen Lord, and history—yours and mine—was forever changed.

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