April 2017

The Paschal Lamb



In this month when we celebrate Easter, we will often hear and may well sing about Christ as the Paschal Lamb. We know what we mean by it. But it’s interesting to think about where the expression comes from, and how the idea is represented visually.

Originally the Paschal Lamb was (and of course still is, in the Jewish tradition) the lamb sacrificed and eaten at the Passover. It was at the Passover meal, according to the Gospels, that Christ instituted the Eucharist, following which he himself was sacrificed on the cross. John the Baptist hailed Jesus with the words ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ (John I v. 29), and the New Testament sees Christ as the fulfilment of the Jewish Passover: ‘Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us’ (I Corinthians 5 v.7), words which we are familiar with in the liturgy today. We associate lambs with new life, and there is the added dimension of their whiteness symbolising purity — not that sheep are always white, and certainly not in the part of the world where Jesus came from, but the associations around the Paschal Lamb are dominated by centuries of representation in Christian art where we have a pure white lamb, indicative of its innocence.

So much for the Lamb. What about Paschal? It comes from Hebrew Pesach ‘Passover’, which passed into the Greek of the New Testament as Paskha and into the Latin of Western Christendom as Pascha, where it had come to signify the celebration of those events which are what the faith is all about: the sacrifice and redemption through the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus, the Lamb of God. In English we call it ‘Easter’ using, as Bede tells us, the name of a pagan goddess whose rites, before the conversion, had been celebrated in the spring-time. By contrast, in those languages derived from Latin the liturgical season is known by a direct descendant of Pascha, such as French Pâques and Italian Pasqua. English borrowed the adjective paschal in the fifteenth century, not directly from Latin, but from French. It has always remained part of the specialised vocabulary of religion.

The Paschal Lamb is often represented in art as a white lamb, with one crooked leg into which nestles the staff of a small flag which flutters above it. The flag is usually a red cross on a white background. The symbolism that I’ve already commented on is clearly in evidence here, but there are other aspects alongside these. The lamb is not sacrificed, but alive: it is thus a symbol of the resurrected Christ, at the same time as it alludes to the sacrificed lamb. And the flag, with its cross, has several connotations: it represents the Cross of the Crucifixion but, without a body on it, it is at the same time the Cross of the Resurrection; the red colour symbolises the blood that was shed; and the cross on a flag suggests the triumph of the cross. For those who know their history, there is an allusion to Constantine’s vision of a cross and a voice saying ‘In this sign, conquer’, following which he adopted the cross as his symbol, won a key battle, and so set the Empire on the path towards the eventual acceptance of Christianity as the state religion of the late Roman/Byzantine Empire. This is the depth of meaning alluded to in the iconography of the Paschal Lamb, which we see throughout church art and architecture, and often at the centre point of our processional and altar crosses.


Joyce Hill