Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Agnus Dei

I hope that you have all recovered now from the festivities of Christmas and the New Year and are settling well into 2008! Here in Hong Kong and China, of course, we are now getting ready for what is a much bigger celebration in terms of the effort that goes into it, that is, Chinese New Year. Not having liturgical significance, this is a celebration I rather enjoy!

At the moment, however, I am preparing for the sermon on Sunday and it has led me down some interesting paths. I am going to be preaching on the Gospel reading from John 1:29 specifically John the Baptist’s words: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ The Lamb motif, the Agnus Dei, is in effect the logo of Christ Church, Kowloon Tong. We have it as a mosaic outside our church and it appears on our literature. This was something I inherited when I came here and have been more than happy to use.

In the past, I have spent some time looking up its use historically in attempt to understand where the symbol originally came from. Fifth century Rome seems the most likely answer, although it only comes to prominence in sources from the ninth century onwards. It was later widely used by the Knights Templar during the Crusades.

What I have been wondering this week, however, is why it was adopted by Christ Church. True, the Lamb represents Christ and we are Christ Church, but I have been at many Christ Churches and it has not been used in this way by them. I have started to enquire into its usage here and interestingly no-one seems to know when, or why, it came to be used. Enquiries are on going and I will let you know!

Does it matter? Not at all. This is just one of those fun things that it is nice to know!

Perhaps more interesting is something that I uncovered in an essay by Richard Bauckham in his recent book: The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple. He discusses the use of gematria in St John’s Gospel. Gematria is where a numerical value is assigned to a word. In Hebrew and Greek, he writes, the letters also represented numbers. Similarly, we sometimes do this in English with A having the value of 1, B equalling 2, and so on. He cites an interesting piece of graffiti from Pompei: ‘I love the girl whose number is 545’. That is, the girl the letters of whose name add up to 545.

Gematria is also behind the number of the Beast in the book of Revelation. In Revelation 13:18 it says:

‘This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.’

The writer is telling his readers who the Beast is. It most likely is the Emperor Nero. The sum of the letters Nero Caesar written in Hebrew is 666.

Why this is interesting as I prepare for Sunday is that, according to Bauckham, in Hebrew the numerical value for the name ‘Jesus’ and for the ‘Lamb of God’ are the same, that is, 391. To quote Bauckham:

So when John the Baptist sees Jesus and says, ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ (1:29, 35-36), he is interpreting the name Jesus by gematria.

Does it matter? Not at all. This is just one of those fun things that it is nice to know!

Much more important is the question of what it means to say that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The use of gematria that I have just referred to shows that the ancient Biblical writers used techniques with which we are not immediately familiar nowadays. This means that we miss things that would have been obvious to the first readers. But it isn’t just in the area of literary techniques that we run into problems.

The sacrifice of animals was a familiar practice in the ancient world. At Passover Jews in Jerusalem sacrificed lambs in their thousands. This is not something we do or understand the point of. In fact, we rather regard the whole business as barbaric and primitive. This makes understanding the concept of Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world also hard to understand. Indeed, it perhaps why some modern day Christians recoil from the idea of Jesus being a sacrifice for sin. As one recent writer puts it: ‘isn’t the idea of God sacrificing his Son a form of cosmic child abuse?’

We live in different worlds in more ways than one. The problem is that because we think we are more advanced than them in scientific and technological ways, we are also more advanced theologically. This is cultural and historical arrogance. We are back to the fact that God chose this time, 2,000 years ago, to give the supreme revelation of himself, the Word made flesh, as we have just celebrated. If we believe this, we are going to have to swallow our pride and accept that in this conceptual world we find so foreign, lie truths that are timeless and eternal, and which we ignore or dismiss at our peril.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

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