Underneath the painting is an inscription in large gold letters on a dark background. It is mostly hidden by candles, a chalice and paten, and most of all a large hymnal on a stand, all in front of it on the altar table. It reads, "Se det Guds Lam". It's Norwegian, which is no surprise on the altar of Faaberg Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church, as it was originally known. (The Swedes, not numerous in this particular community, had their own church a few hundred yards to the southeast. The story goes that when my great grandfather was cast out of the Norwegian church for working on the Sabbath, he caused a minor scandal by attending the Swedish one. I have relatives in both cemeteries.)
The inscription is a quote from John the Baptist in John 1 -- "Behold the Lamb of God!" The full quote is, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." John the Baptist says this to two of his disciples when he is pointing out Jesus as the Messiah. This becomes a sort of bookend to the gospel of John, an idea that John develops throughout his gospel to help the reader understand what it means that Jesus is the Lamb of God, the one who is sacrificed for the sins of the world. In John 6 Jesus goes on at length about his followers needing to eat his flesh (like the Passover lamb) and drink his blood (unthinkable under Jewish law even for the blood of animals) in order to have life. In John 12 Caiaphas, the high priest, points out to the rest of the Jewish rulers (the Sanhedrin) that it is better for one man to die for the people than for the whole nation to perish.
The timing of the sacrifice when Jesus goes to the cross coincides with the Passover festival when the lambs are killed to remember God's great act of deliverance, freeing the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt. In the temple while Jesus was dying, preparations were under way for the people to reenact the Passover once again. Jesus goes to the cross as our Passover lamb, the one whose blood is shed (like the lamb's blood was smeared on the doorposts) to save us from death.
On Sunday mornings as a child I didn't notice the inscription much. I remember, though, as a teenager how we would break into the church (for a few years it was kept locked and we had to figure out how to jimmy the side entrance door) to play ping pong, to hang out in the basement and talk. A few times we went up into the sanctuary and even went inside the altar rail. I suppose at the time we were pretty casual about being in that space, but somehow there was always a sense of something holy about it.
I suppose I was thirteen or fourteen when I spent some time pondering that inscription. "Guds lam" was not hard to figure out, and I had a pretty good sense what the words meant. I had two equal and distinct reactions to the words.
First, as in the biblical summary above, I pondered why the artist chose those particular words to sum up the painting. I spent time thinking about the Passover stories, pondering how Jesus was like and unlike the Passover lamb. This pondering added biblical and theological depth to an idea I had heard preached and sung for years -- that Jesus' death was not just some cosmic atonement (more about that in the next post), but it was personal, that it was for me and for the family, household, and community to which I belonged. I had a very clear sense that the words were for us, for my natural family and for my Christian family. The artist was imploring us to reflect on the painting, to "behold the Lamb of God" as we worshipped.
Second, I thought about the fact that though I didn't speak more than a word or two of Norwegian, the inscription was in the language of my grandfather and my great-grandfather and the old country from which they came. Granted, this inscription was one of a thousand tiny ingredients of my childhood that tied me to an ethnic enclave of Norwegians. But the centrality of these words carried a significant weight. This altar, this painting, this inscription was the focal point of the sanctuary, which was the focal point of the community's life and of my family's faith. The fact that these words were in Norwegian rooted me to a particular tradition of a particular history and a particular kind of Christianity. In later years when I learned about King Olaf ("Saint Olaf") and how he Christianized Norway, and closer to my own upbringing about Hans Nilsen Hauge and his lay-led revival, I had a deep sense that this is my heritage, these are my people, this is my past.
Following Jesus is both being tied to him, to the history and the specifics of first century Palestine, and also being tied to these people, the ones right here and the generation immediately preceding that have passed on this faith to me, to us. We cannot neglect either one. All Christians hold Jesus and his particular history in common, but we each have unique stories of the ethnic, cultural, and personal contexts in which we have been brought to trust in Jesus. This is a gift.