Jesus cannot be understood apart from the history of Israel. God’s covenant relationship with the chosen people – ‘I will be your God and you will be my people’ – is the golden thread running through that history. Everything recounted in the Old Testament, whether in the law or in the prophets or in the writings, records the fortunes of that covenant-relationship and looks forward to its consummation in the coming of Messiah, the Christ. Jesus himself tells us that ‘salvation is from the Jews’ (John 4.22).
In identifying him, John the Baptist describes him as ‘the Lamb of God’ (John 1.29). Lambs were slaughtered and eaten by the Hebrews in the moment of their deliverance from the land of Egypt. The blood of those lambs marked the houses that the Lord ‘passed over’. The annual remembrance of the passover that began their journey towards a promised land, still involved, in Jesus’ day, the slaughtering of lambs in the Temple.
In Jesus’ day also the title ‘lamb of God’ had become a way of referring to the ‘servant of God’, the figure who is the subject of four great poems in the Book of Isaiah (chapters 42, 49, 50 and 52-53). The servant is ‘the beloved’ and ‘the chosen one of God’, another description used by the Baptist to identify Jesus (John 1.34). These titles are uttered by the Father at the baptism and transfiguration of Jesus, according to Matthew 3 and 17, Mark 1 and 9, Luke 3 and 9.
These are thoroughly Jewish titles, then, and they take us to the heart of Jewish experience and faith. Jesus is the lamb, the servant, the chosen one, and the beloved. In Jesus the promise of an everlasting covenant (Jeremiah 31) is fulfilled. In Jesus, God visits His people in a ‘once and for all’ sealing of the covenant (Hebrews 7.27), its establishment on a foundation that can never be shaken. We can even say that Jesus is Israel. The servant of Isaiah is an individual from among the people but represents the whole people, and stands for them so that what happens between him and God is happening between the whole people and God.
But this Jewish messiah, this servant of the chosen people, carries through a work that is not just for the Jews but is for all human beings, for all creation even. He is to bring back Jacob and to gather Israel but he is also to be the light of the nations so that God’s salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
The Christian faith presents us with this paradox, that it is particular and universal. It is a call of particular individuals and communities to be witnesses to the light of Christ in the world and in its history. But this call has a universal reach because God’s salvation is to reach the ends of the earth. The journey taken by Jesus in response to his call was from the outlying reaches of the Holy Land, Galilee of the nations, through Samaria and Judea to Jerusalem with its temple. There, in that very particular place, a particular story reached its climax, the covenant-history of the God of Israel. We believe that climax to be of universal and eternal significance, relevant to all people in every time and place. From Jerusalem the word goes out, the news of our reconciliation, and it is preached in Judea, in Samaria, in Galilee and eventually to the ends of the earth (Acts 1.8).
The phrase ‘lumen gentium’ has become very familiar in recent decades as the title of Vatican II’s constitution on the Church. Christ is ‘the light of the nations’ and the Church is the sacrament – sign and instrument – of Christ in bringing that light to bear on human lives everywhere. ‘He is their Lord no less than ours’, Paul says, referring to all who are called to take their place among all the saints everywhere (1 Corinthians 1.3). He takes away not only the sins of his own people (‘ours the sins he bore, ours the sufferings he carried’, as Isaiah puts it). He takes away ‘the sin of the world’ (John 1.29).
We have just emerged from Christmastide with its great feasts of Nativity, Epiphany and Baptism. We have seen Jesus revealed to his own people – Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, Simeon, Anna. We have seen Jesus revealed to foreigners and outsiders – the magi who followed their understanding to find their way to him.
Those of us who believe have seen his glory as the only Son from the Father. We have, therefore, a responsibility to be ‘phosphorescent’. We are called to be ‘carriers of light’, signs and instruments of the light and love which the Lamb of God has brought into the world.