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Mary’s Little Lion-Lamb

By Clint Wilson

Mary had a little lamb,
His fleece was white as snow,
And everywhere that Mary went,
The lamb was sure to go.

Perhaps you remember these lyrics to the iconic children’s nursery rhyme called “Mary had a little lamb.” This, of course, is the most familiar verse, but you may not remember the second, which reads as follows:

He followed her to school one day,
Which was against the rule,
It made the children laugh and play
To see a lamb at school.

This nursery rhyme was written originally in 1830 and has influenced the way countless generations of school children view lambs. The vision of the lamb that fuels this nursery rhyme trades on a popular understanding in our culture today of how we think of lambs, more generally. In fact, a lamb is a sheep that is under one year old, and is known for its delicate flavor and tender flesh. This is true, and so we tend to find lambs hanging in cradles, or stitched onto seersucker overalls, or shaped into craft pillows at Kids Pottery Barn. It is easy, therefore, for us to map such imagery directly onto Scripture when we hear Jesus referred to as the Lamb who was slain. But in the Revelation of John, we see that this Lamb is no meek and mild play-toy, but is, in fact, a roaring lion worthy of all praise.

You see, Mary did have a little lamb — but his stable-start should clue us into his untamed ways. To be sure, his fleece also is white as snow. And He followed Mary around for quite some time, until Mary — a true disciple — began following him. He went where Mary went, and then he traveled even further, to the place we, and even Mary the messianic mother could not go. The Revelation of John upends our understanding of what it means for Jesus to be a lamb. Here he is not cute nor cuddly; he is not following at our heels to school, but he is calling us, rather, into the school of discipleship, which is to say, the school of worship.

John shows us that in Christ the Lion and the Lamb are one and the same. Joseph Mangina puts it this way in his theological commentary on Revelation:

What John hears is a Lion, what he sees is a Lamb. What he hears is strength, what he sees is weakness. What he hears is a conqueror, what he sees is the quintessential victim—the Lamb. This Lamb is not just destined for sacrifice, moreover, but has actually been slaughtered. If what John hears is life, what he sees is death. And yet not so, because the Lamb is standing, so that the slaughter is a mark of victory; he has passed through death and now stands somehow beyond it. (p. 87)

You see, the lamb that was slain in verse twelve is also revealed as the Lion of Judah in verse five. And he does not only serve as a sacrifice, but he moves beyond this to take his place in the authority of the throne, as John writes: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever” (Rev. 5:13) He is Christus Victor, a fact which John makes clear when in his 29 usages of the word “victor” in Revelation, 28 of them apply directly to Jesus Christ. This Lion-Lamb is King — over death, over life, over everything. He is not just a seersucker overall King.

And yet how easy it is for us to domesticate this lamb-who-is-lion. Dorothy Sayers writes, “We have efficiently trimmed the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified Him ‘meek and mild,’ and recommended Him as a fitting pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.

In other words, we’ve turned him into Mary’s little lamb, who follows us around, who takes our cues, who follows us to the school of the twenty-first century where, quite appropriately, “it makes the children laugh and play, to see this lamb at school.” He is fun and nice, to be sure, but he doesn’t quite belong. At best, this type of domesticated lamb becomes something which might bring joy to children but doesn’t quite fit, at worst, this lamb is unwelcomed in the halls of enlightened academic adulthood. As it should be.

Because this is a lamb and a Jesus of our own making. A Jesus who does not challenge us is a Jesus not worth following. If Jesus just happens to believe everything we already believe, we might want to consider if we’ve created an idol; if we’ve de-clawed Jesus; if we’ve turned him into a play-toy, suitable for a Christmas crèche, but not worth giving our lives to wholeheartedly. You see, the Lion-Lamb of Revelation does not follow us to school — we follow him to school. This is the school where we only partially begin to learn what he did completely  — to live the fully human life, marked by the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. But this lamb is not gentle nor kind towards demolishing death — his love demands nothing less. And so John shows a Lamb that is worthy and is about to open up the seven seals of judgment on those forces and movements that dehumanize and destroy his creation. This is the end of the story — our story — the hope that God will put all things right.

How do you see Jesus? Do you see him as a Lamb — cute and worthy of our admiration, or is your Jesus worth following? Søren Kierkegaard wrote:

It is well known that Christ consistently used the expression ‘follower.’ He never asks for admirers, worshippers, or adherents. No, he calls disciples. It is not adherents of a teaching but followers of a life Christ is looking for…[h]is whole life on earth, from beginning to end, was destined solely to have followers and to make admirers impossible.

When you truly see this Jesus for who he is and for what he has done, there is nothing left to do but to respond to his offer to all his would-be sheep: “Follow Me.”

Fr. Clint Wilson is rector of St. Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church in Louisville, KY.


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