Christ the King Catholic Church
Introductions are important. A young man falls in love with a young woman and brings her home to meet his family. That introduction is important. A new priest is assigned to a parish as pastor and that first meeting of pastor and parishioners is important.
I was in Rome studying theology in 1978, which was the year of three popes. Pope Saint Paul VI died that year after leading the Church for 15 years. He had been entrusted with the difficult task of leading the Church through the final sessions of the Second Vatican Council and the implementation of the renewal called for by that Council. They were important years, but also difficult ones. After his funeral the cardinals of the world gathered at Saint Peter's to choose his successor.
Cardinal Albino Luciani, the Patriarch of Venice, was chosen. He took the name Pope John Paul I. He served for only thirty-three days and was succeeded by Pope Saint John Paul II. As he came out on the balcony of Saint Peter's to be introduced to the world, the first thing that Pope John Paul I did was to smile. The crowd that had gathered at Saint Peter's broke into applause. That smile was his introduction to the world and spoke volumes.
When I was a college seminarian in Cincinnati, Archbishop Joseph Bernardin was the Archbishop of Cincinnati. He was later sent to Chicago and made a Cardinal Archbishop. I always remember that when he was appointed to Chicago, he was inheriting an Archdiocese, a very large Archdiocese, that was in disarray and a presbyterate that had become very alienated from his successor. All eyes were on Archbishop Bernardin when he met for the very first time with the priests of Chicago. Everyone wondered, "What would he say?" "How would he introduce himself to priests who were distrustful and disheartened?" Archbishop Bernardin walked up to the microphone and simply said, "I am Joseph, your brother." The priests began to applaud and then gave their new archbishop a standing ovation after those five simple words. It was the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the Church in Chicago.
As I was reflecting on today's Gospel, I thought of these introductions.
The Baptism of the Lord is the moment in all four Gospels when Jesus is presented to the world and begins his saving ministry. A new chapter in human history begins. Last week in Matthew's Gospel, as Jesus comes up from the waters of the River Jordan, it is God the Father, himself, who presents Jesus to us with the voice that came from heaven: "This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased."
Today we read from St. John's account of the baptism of the Lord. In John's Gospel, John the Baptist is given the awesome task of presenting Jesus to a waiting world. How would he do it? How does one present the Son of God, the Savior of the World, the Lord of lords, and the King of kings? What words would he use?
Steeped in Hebrew scripture, attuned to the sweep of salvation history and all that God had done to prepare for this moment in history and immersed in the hopes and dreams of the People of Israel, John introduces Jesus with these words: "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world."
We are accustomed to calling Jesus 'the Lamb of God'. It's what we say at every Mass as Jesus is presented to us before Holy Communion. The priest presiding at Mass holds the sacred host over the chalice containing Jesus' precious blood and says, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those who are called to the Supper of the Lamb."
"Lamb of God" is the title by which John the Baptist presents Jesus to the world and the title by which he is presented to us at every Mass. What exactly does this expression mean?
Just as Pope John Paul I's smile and just as Archbishop Bemardin's words, "I am Joseph, your brother," were rich in meaning, so, too, John's words were rich in meaning for his Jewish audience. We can never understand who we are as Christians, and especially as Catholic Christians, without knowing and treasuring our Jewish roots. Jesus completes and fulfills all that came before. And so, when John uses the expression 'Lamb of God' there are centuries of meaning behind these words.
John was certainly thinking of the Passover Lamb. In the Old Testament Book of Exodus, we are given the account of the deliverance of the children of Israel from their slavery at the hands of the Egyptians. Moses was called by God to lead the
people out of their captivity and the night before they left Egypt, each Hebrew household was told to slaughter a lamb and to spread the blood of the lamb on the doorpost of the house. The Angel of Death, the tenth plague to strike Egypt, would 'pass over' the houses that were marked with the blood of the lamb. The people were saved by the blood of a lamb. They were commanded to never forget this saving action of God on their behalf. The Passover Meal was to be celebrated each year in every Jewish household as the perpetual memorial of this saving event which is at the heart of Jewish history.
John calls Jesus the Lamb of God because we will be saved by the blood of this lamb in a New Passover. The night before he dies on the cross, Jesus celebrates the Last Supper with his Apostles in which he gives us the 'memorial' of this New Passover, the way in which we will forever remember God's saving action in our history. On the cross Jesus takes on himself the sin of the world and sheds his blood so that we might be saved from our slavery to sin and the consequence of that slavery which is death - eternal separation from God. Just as the Children of Israel were once saved from their slavery in Egypt by the blood of a lamb, so, too, we are saved from our slavery to sin by the blood of a lamb - the blood of the One John the Baptist presents to us as the Lamb of God.
John the Baptist was the son of Zechariah, a Jewish priest. He was familiar with Temple worship. Every morning and every evening a lamb was sacrificed in the Temple in Jerusalem in atonement for the sins of the people. John calls Jesus the Lamb of God because by his sacrifice on the cross, Jesus atones for the sins of the world. This one, perfect sacrifice is made present in time and space by the work of the Holy Spirit at every Mass and every time we celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Jesus is the Lamb of God who atones for the sins of the world.
The prophets also contributed to this rich image that John uses to describe Jesus. Both Isaiah and Jeremiah speak at length of a mysterious person who would willingly take on himself the guilt of others and pay the price for their sins of others. This person is called the 'suffering servant', whom the prophets tell us would be like a 'lamb lead to the slaughter'. And by his suffering and death, he would redeem his people.
John the Baptist was given the awesome task of pointing out the Savior of the world when, in the fullness of time, he would come. I don't know if John stayed
awake at night thinking of what he would say when that moment came, or if in that moment at the River Jordan the Holy Spirit just gave him the words to say, but he found the way, the perfect way, to present the One who is the Son of God, the Savior of the World, the Lord of lords, and the King of kings. "Behold the Lamb of God."
Introduced to the world, Jesus now begins his saving ministry. After 30 years of obscurity, he sets foot on the world stage and he enters human history, as he enters our liturgy today, as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. At every Mass the work of our redemption continues and by Jesus' one perfect sacrifice atonement is made for our sins.
Truly, how blessed we are to be called to the supper of this Lamb!