Agnus Dei

In Room 10-A of the Prado Museum in Madrid you will find among other wonderful things, a painting by the 17th century Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán that is commonly known as Agnus Dei, or Lamb of God.  It is a very famous painting, perhaps you have seen it there at the museum or in reproductions.  Or you may have seen one of the five other versions of this subject that Zurbarán painted, like the one hanging at the San Diego Museum of Art.  El Prado, however, says its version is the finest of them all, and I believe them.

The painting is simple: a wooly merino lamb is lying on its side on a grey slab of some kind, facing to the left, as the viewer observes the picture.  The Lamb has horns, elegantly curved, that look as though they could some day be made into shofars, the horn that is sounded to mark the end of Yom Kippur.  All four of its feet are bound together above the fetlock with two strands of a cord of some not-too-heavy kind: the knot is not visible.  With its feet tied together, the animal’s back makes a kind of hump, lying there on the slab, that looks as though it could be the profile of a mountain ridge if the painting was a landscape.  The left eye of the lamb (the only one we can see) is open, pale eyelashes delicately lined in; and we can see that the lamb’s gaze is directed down, past its pink nose, at the grey slab on which it lies, as if in resignation.  There is no blood shown in the painting; we are to understand that the lamb is alive, but that its destiny is sealed.  Light shines down on the lamb from the upper left at a relatively high angle, so that only a little shadow is thrown, although beyond the pool of light that bathes the lamb, all is darkness.  Behold the Lamb of God.

Zurbarán did not give the painting its name, per se.  As I understand it, some of the versions do contain inscriptions, and the one in Santa Barbara includes a faint halo over the lamb’s head.  But at the Prado there is nothing depicted on the canvas but the lamb – no explicit religious iconography - so that a viewer could suppose the painting is intended simply as a still life of the animal.  Such a viewer, would, I feel quite certain, be missing the point.  The painter is saying much more with this simple image than he can accomplish with only the strokes of his brush.  Behold the Lamb of God.

When John the Baptist announced Jesus’ arrival with these words, “Behold the Lamb of God,” he was, I think, inspired to say more about Jesus with those few words than the words themselves indicate.  And what could he possibly have thought he meant when he said that Jesus “takes away the sin of the world”?  Jesus had just wandered in from the desert; did John think that he would be driven out there again, like the ancient scape-goat, to bear the people’s sins for them?  Was he thinking of the Passover lamb, whose blood was smeared on the doorposts to protect the children of Israel?  Did he have some mystic insight into the vision of the apocalyptic lamb who sits upon the throne that had not yet been given to St. John the Divine?

And what do we think it means, that Jesus came to take away the sin of the world?  Shouldn’t we at least test the claim, made so long ago?  If Jesus’ mission was to take away the sin of the world, then he must not have done a very good job of it.  Is sin any less pervasive than it now than it was in his day? Aren’t things, in fact, worse today than they were then, at least if you want to take a measurement anywhere I can see?

What metric are we to use to evaluate the effectiveness of Jesus’ ministry to take away the sin of the world?  If John the Baptist was right, how can we demonstrate it to be so?  “Behold the Lamb of God,” he says.  But, so what?  What does that mean?  And what does it matter?

Sitting at my desk, I feel compelled, if I am to talk to you of this, to explore the question of that metric by which to demonstrate that Jesus has, indeed, taken away the sin of the world.  I think if the claims about which I preach are true, I should be able to do this.  If I am going to call him the Lamb of God, I should know what I am talking about.  I should be able to measure this somehow.  Maybe I have just not put my mind to it before.  Maybe someone has already worked this out and posted it on the Internet?  I think this could be done; I think it should be done, as I sit there at my desk, and begin to think of a chart, or a table that I could use to measure God’s success rate at taking away the sin of the world.  My computer is running, and I have sheets of paper before me, and sharpened pencils, and an open Bible, and I am thinking, and thinking, and thinking.  But it is late afternoon, and I become drowsy, and the task is harder than it should be.

People sometimes dream that they can enter into paintings – you know, walk along the Seine with Seurat, or, row among the water lilies with Monet, or check the drooping time with Dalí.  What would I do if I could inhabit that masterpiece of Zurbarán’s in a dream for a little while, if I could shrink down and crawl up into the canvas, and hear the slow breath of the lamb, smell the heavy odor of his wool, and feel the lanolin on my fingers as I reach down to stroke his coat?

The impulse, of course, is to untie him.  But perhaps that is why the knot is out of sight, so that I will not be tempted.  And in my dream, I have no knife with which to cut the cord.  What am I to do?  Clearly the lamb is in trouble, but I cannot save this lamb.  Is there anything I can do for him?  It would seem that there is nothing he can do for me.

So in my dream, I lie down beside the lamb.  I have no shoes on, and perhaps no shirt, I don’t know.  I know that I can smell him, and I can hear him breathing.  He is smaller than a Labrador.  I put my arm out to touch him, and he does not shudder, but I can feel the steady, slow rhythm of his side, as he draws breath in and out, for now.  He is not struggling.  He shifts his eyes to look at me; and his gaze, that looked so sad to me before, is gentle, not frightened.

Very quickly, a sensation is coming over me.  For I had thought I had entered this painting to discover something about the lamb.  But now that I hear his breathing, and feel the rise and fall of his breast, and smell the musty odor of his coat, I sense that I am beginning to know something new about myself, not about the lamb.  I am moved, as I lie beside this lamb, all of a sudden, for I seem to know myself in some rich complexity as both a beloved child of God whose blessings are many, and as a sinner whose foolishness is now flashing before my eyes, as if it was my destiny that was sealed here on this slab, not his.  He is the one who is bound, but now I can see myself for who I am – marvelously made, but oh so prone to wander.  I am looking into the tired eyes of this condemned lamb, lying on my side, staring into his calm eyes, my hand stroking his soft wool, and along with all my blessings, I can see everyone I have ever hurt, and every stupid thing I have ever done, and every good deed I left undone.  And I feel as though I can hear some choir singing a litany just for me: “Have mercy upon him, miserable sinner.”  The choir is singing for me, I know, not angrily, but in some recitation of the truth.

Bound as he is this way, as I face the lamb in my dream, I can only reach out to him across his fettered hooves.  But something in me needs to be closer.  So I get up and crawl around him to a part of the painting that is obscured from view, and I lie down behind the lamb, spooning, embracing the wooly hump of his back with my torso and arms so I can hold him close to me, and reach under his horns and scratch him soothingly behind the ears.  This way, the pace of my breathing can match his slow breath, and you would think that I am cradling him thus to calm the frightened lamb.  But he is not frightened, and I am the one who is becoming calm, as the choir’s singing fades away, and I hear the echo of mercy more clearly than the accounting of my sins.  And I think that the lamb does not fall asleep, but I do, with a restfulness that I have never known before.  And if I am dreaming within my dream, I cannot tell what the inner dream is.  But a new chorus is beginning to rouse me: Behold the Lamb of God.

Because we have been trained by cash registers, credit cards, and spread sheets – which often inspire nightmares, but seldom dreams – we find it hard to escape the idea that the cries of John the Baptist are claims that must be quantified, tested, audited, and reported.  But that is not really how faith works.  It’s not how redemption works.  It’s not how salvation works.

You believe – you become a person of faith – because you enter into this vision of this lamb, and confronted by him, you see, you know to be true, things that you did not know to be true before.  You see what a sinner you are, and yet here is the lamb, bound before you, and already you know that he has taken away your sin and the sin of the world, and you discover that you can now get on with being marvelously made.

Redemption is not a mystic transaction within the economy of sin; it is a living encounter with this weak and helpless lamb, whose power is nevertheless greater than any other power in the universe.  It is the drop to your knees when you decide to reach out to touch this lamb, to love him, and to try to match your breath to his, which, you find, is stronger than it should be for a lamb who appears to be doomed.

And salvation is not wrought by war-weary angels who battle on our behalf with a dragon, (although the angels have surely fought their battles).  But the salvation of our souls, our lives, our all, is accomplished by this small lamb: tied up and undoubtedly headed for death.  And to be in his presence, thus bound, is to discover that it must be so, for he must go where we will some day go, to mark the path that leads through the grave and gate of death and beyond into a new life prepared for all who love him.

Behold the Lamb of God; behold him who takes away the sin of the world.

It turns out that this claim, hangs not on my ability to provide a table of sins forgiven, erased, or eradicated.  It turns out to be an invitation, not only to behold, but to encounter, to embrace the One who comes in the name of the Lord.  He was sent for you and for me – for our sakes and for all – to give his life as a ransom for many. 

It is already accomplished, already done, it is finished.  All that is required is to behold this lamb, to come to him, and to take him as your savior.



Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

15 January 2017

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on January 15, 2017 .