“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” are words very familiar to us. We hear these words at every Mass following the Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”) as the priest holds up the fractured host. The words are John’s. We hear them in their original context in the gospel passage for today’s liturgy.
Last Sunday we celebrated the Epiphany and on Monday the Baptism of the Lord. Usually, we celebrate that on a Sunday but because of the way the calendar falls this year it was on a weekday. The Gospel passage today however reminds us of Jesus’ baptism. In the version of that account from The Gospel According to John we hear John the Baptist identify Jesus as he approaches.
John’s role is one of preparation. We do not know much about the intervening years between Jesus birth and His public ministry. The only other Gospel reference to his childhood is from the Gospel According to Luke, and that is the story of the finding of the child Jesus in the Temple.
One common element to the celebration of Christmas, Epiphany and the Baptism (or even the account today) is that Jesus is made known, pointed out, or identified.
At Christmas, we remember the angel’s speaking to the shepherds in the field announcing the good news. On the Epiphany, we remember the star leading the magi to come and worship the newborn King. Now we remember John’s announcement to all the crowds who were coming to hear him. His ministry is one of preparation. When he was questioned himself whether he was the Christ, he answers with an emphatic “I am not the Messiah.” (John 1:20) When asked who he is, he replies: “I am ‘the voice of one crying out in the desert, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” (John 1:23).
In today’s account, as Jesus is approaching, he says: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. He is the one of whom I said, ‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.’” (John 1:29) John will use this expression the following day when Jesus approaches again. This time he points Jesus out to two of his disciples, one of whom is Andrew. They then follow Jesus and become His disciples. Andrew then goes to his brother Peter and says: “We have found the Messiah.” The word about Jesus is spreading. The good news is shared. Word is being spread and people will find that Good News in Jesus. He will be made known to many by the disciples who respond to his invitation which has been repeated by disciples throughout the two millennia since: “Come and see.” (John 1:39)
John calls Jesus the “Lamb of God.” The simple reference looks both to the past and to the future. The reference to the past is to the Passover. The lamb was slaughtered on the night before God delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The blood of the lamb was placed on the lintels of their homes. It marked the Israelites for deliverance and protected them from death.
By Jesus’ time, this event was celebrated ritually with the annual Passover meal. The lamb becomes a symbol of freedom and life, of God’s saving activity in the life of Israel. Now John is associating the lamb with Jesus. When the public ministry reaches its climax, Jesus will become the lamb who is slain. He offers Himself in his passion and death so that all who believe in Him might have life and the forgiveness of sin. The blood and water flowing from his wounded side on the cross symbolizes the stream of life for all. His resurrection from the dead three days later will make known His victory and secure for his disciples all that he promises.
John reminds us, in no ambiguous manner, that Jesus is the focus of life. He is the one who can give it and will give it. Now at the beginning of the new year we have the opportunity to celebrate and share the Life and Light who is Jesus, the Christ.
Like John the Baptist, Andrew, and Peter, as well as all the other named and unnamed disciples, we have received the gift of life in Christ. The gift is meant to be shared.
In the year ahead, we will have many opportunities to pass on the good news to others, to offer the gift we have received, to echo the words of John – “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”; and of Jesus – “Come and see.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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