by Dan Loch
In Sunday’s First Reading Israel, the servant of the Lord, has the mission to bring the people back to the Lord. But wait! There’s more: “It is too little, the Lord says, for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob& I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” Not only is the “Servant of the Lord” to restore and gather the Jewish survivors from their capture and exile to Babylon, he also will be Savior of the world. And this “Servant” is a foreshadowing of Jesus as the Messiah of the whole world.
We next hear from Paul, the great evangelizer of Jesus’ worldwide mission of salvation. In the Second Reading Paul’s greeting to the Christians in the city of Corinth could just as well be written to us today: “Paul& to the church of God that is in Norwalk, made up of those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called holy.” I would ask the children in grades 4, 5, and 6 at the 10:30 am REACH Mass to raise their hands if they thought they were “holy.” Few hands went up. I had to remind them they already were “holy.” At our baptisms, we got a great big dousing of the Holy Spirit. You and I were plunged into Holy Spirit. We ended up with that “new car” smell of the Holy Spirit. We were made holy.
Then in the Gospel we hear of the baptism of Jesus. John the Baptist proclaims of Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” I hear this before Communion at every Mass with auto-pilot hearing and begin my memorized response as if a bell had been rung. But exactly what does “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” mean?
What do I know about lambs? They are pure, white, fluffy, and defenseless. Lambs don’t seem able to notice danger very easily. They follow where they’re led, even to execution. In the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs the imprisoned psychopath Dr. Lecter gets FBI agent Clarice Starling to talk about how she still wakes at night hearing the cry of the lambs as they were led to slaughter on her uncle’s farm. John’s use of the metaphor of the lamb in reference to Jesus is meant to inspire in us a similar empathy.
What did the Jews of Jesus’ time know about lambs? A lot. Many were shepherds. Jewish law mandated that a lamb had to be killed at least once a year, at Passover. The sacrifice of a lamb proved how serious you were about atoning for your sins. Such a sacrifice cost the shepherd big time. Lambs were money. This was serious Offertory giving. Saying Jesus is the Lamb of God is a shorthand way of telling us that Jesus is God’s most precious gift, God’s own self. And He gives Jesus to the world so that we might know how serious God is about us.
In looking up this Gospel I came across something linguistically interesting, a play on words. “Talya,” the Aramaic word for sheep, is the same word used for “servant.” Those to whom John the Baptist spoke would have known it, too. Jesus, then, is the servant who takes away the sin of the world. “Talya” or “servant” also would be a surprising reminder of the First Reading and “the Servant of the Lord.”
And remember the First Reading when John the Baptist says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” It is the sin “of the world” that Jesus takes away, meaning all humanity’s sins. This was a tough concept for the ancient Jews who thought of themselves as God’s “chosen people.” Today some struggle with the idea that God’s love and mercy are so extravagant that they are poured out for absolutely anyone and everyone. Some Christians prefer an “us vs. them” attitude: If you’re not one of “us,” no heaven for you!
There is an odd line in this Gospel that I had to look up. John says “A man is coming after me who ranks before me because he existed before me.” In Jewish tradition, prophets and patriarchs who came earlier in Jewish history ranked higher than those who came later. So Abraham is first and foremost. Later prophets were regarded as great, but not greater than Abraham. Here John announces that Jesus ranks before John himself because Jesus existed before John. He is saying that Jesus is more than simply the latest in a long line of prophets. Jesus is more, more than John, more than anyone can imagine, the Son of God.
Bottom line: John the Baptist gives the crowd confidence in Jesus and hands off to Him the authority that the crowd perceived in John. John the Baptist was a witness. His role was to point to Jesus and say “He is the One! He is the Man!” I am instantly reminded of Pilate’s “Behold the Man!” And I remember people who gave me confidence and direction.
A high school teacher’s example influenced me to want to be a teacher, something I had never imagined. A college prof got me going on winning a grad school fellowship, something I had never imagined. Another helped me get into Columbia grad school, something I had never imagined. An Army buddy showed me the categories bred into me were stereotypes, something I had never imagined. A whisper induced me to surrender my will, something I had never imagined. AA pointed me to back to faith, something I had never imagined. A good priest in Confession relieved me of my over-whelming guilt and toward reconciliation, something I had never imagined. A community organizer pointed me to CONECT, something I had never imagined. My wife, Florence, helped me in more ways than I can count at very many turns in my life, to things I had never imagined, to get married, to have children, to get sober, to know that everything works out, to shut up and pray hard. Some of the biggest changes in my life were not initiated by me, but by others or circumstances. Looking back, I now can see the hand of God using others and using circumstances to change me so I could stretch and grow. Now the way I choose to live my life can point the way just as powerfully as John the Baptist did.