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Lamb of God

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Agnus Dei

Brass Agnus Dei from altar-front in the Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville, Kentucky

Lamb of God is one of the titles given to Jesus in the New Testament and consequently in the Christian tradition. It refers to Jesus' role as a sacrifice atoning for the sins of man in Christian theology, harkening back to ancient Hebrew sacrifices in which a lamb was slain during the Passover. In the original Passover in Egypt, the blood was smeared on the door posts and lintel of each household (Exodus 12:1-28).

The subject has been an important one in Christian art, covered at Agnus Dei.

Background

Ghent Altarpiece D - Adoration of the Lamb 2

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, detail of the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan Van Eyck.

The Biblical significance of the title is rendered in the context of earlier lamb symbolism. The blood of the paschal lamb of the Old Testament protects and saves the Israelites in Exodus 12. This link is made explicit in 1 Corinthians 5:7. For Paul, Christians are saved by Christ as their true paschal lamb.

The Old Testament also testifies to the earlier practice of sin offerings as a possible means of atonement. Lambs could be used in these offerings (e.g. Leviticus 4:32–34 and 5:6), and this link is strongly suggested by Gospel of John 1:29 and 1 Peter 1:19. Just as in Judaism sins could be forgiven through the offering and the pouring out of the blood of an "unblemished" lamb (cf. Lev 4:32), so Christians believe they can be freed from sin by the blood of Jesus, the unblemished Lamb of God. See Sin for further discussion about the concept of sin and the means of atonement in Judaism. Those who reject the lamb of God atonement theology say that blood cannot forgive sin and that Jesus taught us to remove our sins by repentance, love and forgiving others.

Lastly, Christians believe that the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 refers to Jesus, although many identify the servant as Israel personified arguing that the identity of the servant has already been established by Isaiah in previously stated passages (Isaiah 41 :8–9; 44:1–2, 21; 45:4; 48:20; 49:3). According to Isaiah 53, the suffering servant remains silent "like a lamb led to the slaughter" (53:7) and "gives his life as an offering for sin" (53:10). Christians add that this link is explicit in Acts 8:32 and strengthens the idea of Jesus as a sin offering. Those who reject the Lamb of God Theology say that Isaiah 53 cannot be applied to the suffering servant for the servant in Is. 53 has children and Jesus was celibate.

Geza Vermes posited that the title Lamb of God does not necessarily refer to the metaphor of a sacrificial animal. He points out that in Galilean Aramaic the word talya, literally "lamb", had the common meaning of "male child". This is akin to "kid" meaning "child" in modern colloquial English. The female equivalent of Talya was Talitha, literally "ewe lamb" and figuratively "girl" (the word is found in the Narrative of the Daughter of Jairus). Thus, "Lamb of God" could have been a slang means of saying "Son of God" or "God's Kid". Those who reject this Lamb of God theology believe that since Jesus said the goats (kids) will go into the fire, it is blasphemous to call Jesus the "goat of God or Kid of God."

Mass

Lamb of God is also the popular name of a litany beginning with these words used in the Roman Catholic Mass and in the worship services of many other churches. It is said to have been introduced into the Mass by Pope Sergius I (687–701). Based upon John 1:29, the Latin form (with translation) is:

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.</br> Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.</br> Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.</br>
O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.</br> O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.</br> O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace.</br>
This litany is spoken or sung during the Rite of Fraction and Commingling.

In a Requiem Mass, the words "miserere nobis" are replaced by "dona eis requiem" (give them rest) and "dona nobis pacem" by "dona eis sempiternum requiem" (give them eternal rest).

It is also appended to many of the Church's litanies. In the Church of England, it is acceptable for the "Agnus Dei" to be sung in English by the choir during the administration of Holy Communion, provided that the reception of the elements is not delayed till its conclusion.

In the Roman Catholic Church, this name also refers to a small cake made of the wax of the Paschal candle and impressed with this figure. Since the 9th century, it has been customary for the Pope to bless these cakes, and distribute them on the Sunday after Easter among the faithful. In modern times the distribution has been limited to persons of distinction, and is made by the Pope on his accession and every seven years thereafter.

Divine Service

In the Lutheran Divine Service the Agnus Dei is sung in English after the Words of Institution and before the distribution of Holy Communion. After it is sung Holy Communion follows.

See also

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