Saturday, January 18, 2020

Agnus Dei...Behold the Lamb of God!

The Catholic Liturgy for the 2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Jan. 19, 2020. The Gospel of John 1:29-34. Theme: Agnus Dei…Behold the Lamb of God

If there is a title for Jesus that we Catholics have heard the most and yet probably understand the least, it’s the one proclaimed in today’s Gospel: the Lamb of God.  We hear it and recite it several times during Mass, week after week – for some of us day after day – but do we understand why Jesus was given this name? Do we see what it means for us, especially how it points us to the One who can fulfill our hearts deepest desires?

To connect the dots for these questions, we need to take a brief look at the religious customs of the Hebrews. Animal sacrifices were very common in the Old Testament. Their purpose was to beg God to forgive sins and put those who offered the sacrifices in a right relationship with him. And lambs, whose white coats are symbolic of purity and holiness, had a very important place in these rituals.

The most important of these rituals that took place every year was that of Passover in which lambs were the central feature.  It was offered in remembrance of the deliverance of the Jews from Egyptian slavery. The blood of a spotless white Passover Lamb was to be smeared on the doorpost of the house and the family was to eat the flesh of this sacrificed lamb in a special ritual meal. But the sacrifices of the Old Testament, even the Passover sacrifice, were insufficient offerings for sin.  They could only express people’s sorrow but not actually remove their sin and wipe away their guilt. Why? Because animal sacrifices had only human power behind them. 

A better way was necessary and God himself provided this better way in Jesus, the Lamb of God. The sacrifice of the Lamb of God had divine power behind it.  It was a perfect sacrifice by which God the Son freely offered himself up on our behalf out of love. It accomplished what millions of lamb sacrifices could never do. It brought to fulfilment what the prophets of Israel had said about the Messiah, the Savior-to-come: he would be like the lamb brought silently to the slaughter, to take the sins of the people upon himself and wash them away through his blood.

Now we can hopefully begin to see, to understand, why Jesus is called the Lamb of God. It was no accident that he was arrested and put to death during Passover.  As a matter of fact, Jesus died at the very same time, and on the very same day, that the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple. The gospel specifically mentions this because it wants us to see the connection between the Passover Lamb and Jesus, the Lamb of God.

So, that’s the reason, the back story, to calling Jesus the Lamb of God. But what does it mean for us today? Why do we still call Jesus by this name and even repeat it three times before receiving Holy Communion?  At every Mass, the priest is like St. John the Baptist pointing out the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He holds up the Consecrated Host which is truly the Risen Christ, and directs us to turn our eyes towards the Lamb of God. He does this so that we might never forget what this Lamb - through his sacrifice - has made possible for us.

The Passover Lamb is a sign of God’s mercy and saving love. For Israel, it meant their rescue from Egypt. For us who profess Jesus as Lord and Savior it means being rescued from our sins. Through the offering up of his life for us on the cross and by his powerful resurrection, the Lamb of God has made it possible for us to be delivered from such destructive behaviors as greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, pride and many other shackles of selfishness.  This is why we add the phrase “have mercy on us” to the invocations at Mass. We turn to the Lamb whose heart is full of compassion and beg him to look with pity on our weakness and to heal the spiritual and emotional wounds that lead us to sin.

But why do we add the last invocation, “grant us peace”?  It’s because through the sacrifice of the Lamb of God we have the opportunity to receive the forgiveness of sin and thus experience true inner peace. We first receive this gift of forgiveness at baptism but how many of us keep that gift intact? And so, the Lamb, in his mercy, gives us the Sacrament of Reconciliation through which we can lay before him all of our sins that need to be washed in the blood of his sacrifice. Through a humble and honest confession, they can be totally annihilated and utterly destroyed by the power of his cross and resurrection.

When Jesus does this for us, liberating us from the guilt of sin and declaring us innocent in God’s sight, then we are granted authentic peace: peace of heart, peace of mind, peace of soul, peace of conscience.  And with this kind of peace dwelling within us, it matters very little what is happening in life around us because we know that all will be well. With this kind of peace within us, we can live lives that are reasonable happy in this world and hope for lives that are forever happy in the next.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

The Triple Gift of Baptism

The Catholic Liturgy for the Baptism of the Lord, Jan. 12, 2020. Gospel of St. Matthew 3:13-17. Theme: The Triple Gift of Baptism

The feast of the Baptism of the Lord that we celebrate today has been a favorite theme in both art and liturgy since the earliest days of Christianity.  It closes up the Christmas season and presents us with the Child Jesus now all grown up into a young adult, about 30 years of age.  He has spent the bulk of his life in the little village of Nazareth, living an ordinary life and working as a laborer, a carpenter. In today’s Gospel, we see Him approach his cousin, St. John the Baptist at the Jordan River, ready to inaugurate His public mission as the Messiah, the Savior, the Promised One sent to lead humanity back to God.

Jesus enters the Jordan River, not because He has any sins to be washed away, but to show that he is in solidarity with us sinners.   In some mystical but real way, we are all united with him, gathered together in him, at that moment as He delves into its waters. He begins his public appearance and ministry in this way because he is the Lamb of God who has come to heal us spiritually and give us new life in God through his ultimate sacrifice on the cross. 

Jesus shows us by his example that baptism is our first step to a new and meaningful relationship with God. And what happened to Him at his baptism is both a sign and a promise of what happens to each one of us at ours. By reflecting on this gospel, we can discover some extremely important truths about the Sacrament of Baptism: it destines us for Heaven, it fills us with the Holy Spirit, and it makes us beloved children of God.

The first thing we hear about after Jesus comes up out of the water is that heaven was opened. And this is precisely what Baptism does for us. It re-opens the way to Heaven which was closed to us by the original sin of Adam and Eve.  Recall that in the beginning of our history, the first humans were given the choice of living in obedience to our Creator or of living life on their own terms, separated from him. They freely chose to turn their backs on God and turned down the gift of eternal life with Him in Heaven.  

And so, the heritage they passed on the human race, to us their descendants, was this spiritual deficiency, this spiritual alienation from God and heaven. Every single human being since then – except for Jesus and Mary – have been conceived and born into our world in this spiritually-challenged condition we call original sin.
But Jesus came precisely to undo what the first humans had done. His mission as God-in-the-flesh was to give each one of us a chance to accept God’s invitation and re-enter an intimate relationship with him. And the first step in making this choice is baptism.

The next marvelous thing we see at the Jordan is the Holy Spirit coming down upon Jesus under the appearance of a dove. The dove is a universal human symbol of peace and innocence and it is by the waters of baptism that we are freed from the ancient chains of sin and become at peace with God. This innocence and peace remain within us as long as we chose to live the promises of our baptism: to reject sin and Satan, to accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, and to live as Christians, believing what Jesus teaches us through the Scriptures and his Church.

This indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit is a baptismal gift to us that is the core of our intimate relationship with God. It is a gift that keeps-on-giving throughout our lives, making us His living, walking, breathing temples. And His presence is increased within us every time we pray, receive the sacraments with faith and devotion, and strive to do good to others. Imagine that!

Finally, the gospel tells us that God the Father’s voice was audibly heard declaring Jesus to be His Beloved Son in whom He is well pleased. And this is exactly what God the Father says about each one of us who have become spiritually one with Jesus in Baptism: we become His beloved adopted children in whom He finds delight! The Scriptures assure us that God delights over you, delights over me, delights over each one of us personally.  And it’s this personal love of God that transforms us from the inside out, giving us the desire, the grace, the spiritual power, to live and love in a way that delights in Him in return.

So, maybe we can better see now why the Baptism of Jesus has always been a favorite story among of the Christian people, both in liturgy and in art. It’s not so much because of what it says about Christ per se, but more-so because of what it says about us.  Or more precisely, what is says about the marvelous and awesome things that God does for us through, with and in our beloved Brother and Lord, Jesus.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

What's My Epiphany?

The Catholic Liturgy for Epiphany Sunday, January 5, 2020. Gospel – Matthew 2:1-12. Theme: What’s My Epiphany?

Epiphany is a Greek word meaning manifestation, a realization that something that had been hidden from us is now being made known. In Christianity, epiphany means the revelation that in Jesus, Son of Mary, the Child born in Bethlehem, we behold our Lord, God and Savior come to us in person, come to us in the flesh. Throughout the life of Christ, from Christmas to Easter, this epiphany is always present in one form or another….it never goes away.

And the questions it always asks of us are primarily two:  First, how do you, personally, respond to the revelation that Jesus Christ is God-with-us, God-become-one-of-us? And second, what effect does it have or can it have on your life?  Everyone who encounters Jesus must face these questions sooner or later, there is no getting around it. It seems to me that we can find in today’s Gospel story three possible responses, both negative and positive, to this epiphany or revelation about Jesus Christ.

I see the first type of response in the reaction of King Herod when he learns about the Newborn Messiah. He was a very wicked man whose jealousy and thirst for power had led him to kill several of his own sons who were threats to his throne. So, it was no surprise that he would order the slaughter of the young boys of Bethlehem in an attempt to get rid of this newborn king of the Jews.  Herod’s response to Jesus was rooted in selfishness and sin. He thought only of himself and cared only about his own status and situation in life. His response to the epiphany is self-protection and rejection.

A second type of response can be found in the religious leaders whom Herod called to advise him. They knew the Scriptures very well. They were, after all, professional clergy and scholars of their day.  They knew well the prophecies about the Messiah. Yet when the news reaches them they do nothing at all to investigate if this is true.  They stay put rather than go to Bethlehem and see for themselves if their long-hoped for dreams of the Messiah have come true. Their response to the epiphany was a complacent yawn. They were comfortable as they were. Happy with the status quo.

The third type of response to the revelation about Jesus can be seen in the Magi themselves. They were utterly intrigued, captivated, by the quest to find the One whom the star represented. They invested a lot of themselves, their time and energy, in their study of the prophecies concerning the Messiah, in mapping out their route to Jerusalem, in gathering up supplies as well as the precious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Their response to the epiphany was the total desire and heartfelt determination to discover and bow down before the Newborn King.

Why such different responses to the epiphany of Jesus Christ? I think that the answer is found deep within each one of them, deep within each one of us; in the secret hopes, dreams and treasures of the heart.

Those who are like Herod have their hearts fixed only upon themselves and what life can do and be for them. They have struggled and even walked on others to get what they have and no one is going to take it away from them.  The epiphany of Jesus to them is a threat to their self-focused lives that must be eliminated immediately.

Others, perhaps a majority of us, are like the religious leaders and scholars. Life may not be perfect or anything like what we had hoped for, but we settle for something that is better than nothing. We don’t want to be disturbed out of our safe and secure routine. Stepping out into the unknown is scary so our hearts are not open to the risk of what encountering the long-hoped for Messiah might mean.

But then there are those like the Magi, who acknowledge that it is God and not self that is the center of the universe.  They are those who know that a complacent life is not a truly happy life.  They have experienced how empty they can be inside, and know that there is something more which they seek.  They have hearts that yearn for wholeness and lives that thirst for real meaning. Like the Magi, they are utterly intrigued, captivated, by the quest to find the One whom the star represented and who can answer the deepest questions of the heart.  And so, they are willing to do whatever is necessary to find the Christ, the Promised One whom the prophets called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God and Prince of Peace.

As we celebrate the Epiphany at the beginning of a new year, let’s ask the Lord for the grace to answer this question honestly: what is my epiphany, my personal response, to the revelation of Jesus Christ as King, God and Savior? Am I eager and willing to do whatever it takes to truly know Jesus up close and personal? Am I willing to go the extra mile in prayer and service to others to deepen my relationship with Jesus? Is the light of Christ the bright shining star that guides my steps and enlightens my life?