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.