Bishop Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles
Homily for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sunday, January 20, 2008
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
"Behold, the Lamb of God." John 1:29
"Behold, the Lamb of God" (John 1:29). Of all the names Jesus is called in the Bible, "lamb" is the most unusual. We call Jesus many things: Lord, God, Savior, Messiah, Son of Man, Son of David. But a lamb? Why would St. John the Baptist use this terminology? What does it mean? And why do we quote St. John at every Mass, when we recite or sing, "Lamb of God, who take away the sin of the world"? Why does the priest at every Mass lift the host before Holy Communion and say, "This is the Lamb of God"? Lamb is what I call a trigger word in the Bible, a word that triggers a whole set of associations. To understand the associations will help us to understand what St. John triggers when he calls Jesus "the Lamb of God."
We meet the lamb first in the Book of Exodus (Exodus 12). God had decided to free His people from slavery in Egypt. To test Pharaoh¹s will, God sent plagues and saved the worst for last, the killing of the first-born. To save themselves from this curse, God ordered the Hebrews to eat a lamb and smear its blood on their doorposts. Thanks to this "sign" the Hebrews would be spared a visit from the exterminating angel. God also commanded that the Jews keep this feast as a "memorial" and "a perpetual institution" (Exodus 12:14). For the Jews, then, the blood of the lamb became a sign of freedom from slavery and a sign of being bound to God in a covenant. "Behold, the Lamb of God."
For the Jews the lamb meant sacrifice. When the Hebrews finally entered the Promised Land and established a kingdom, they built a glorious temple in Jerusalem. The priests offered daily sacrifices. "Each day, the priests sacrificed two lambs, one in the morning and one in the evening, to atone for the sins of the nation" (Scott Hahn, "The Lamb¹s Supper", p. 21). The Temple in Jerusalem stood on holy ground, ground made holy by sacrifice. Here Melchizedek was supposed to have offered bread and wine in sacrifice. Here God had asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. The Temple was the perpetual place of sacrifice, and the Passover, commemorating the Exodus, was the greatest day of sacrifice. At Passover, it is estimated that over two million pilgrims came to Jerusalem for that commemoration. The first century Jewish historian Josephus leaves us a record that in the last year of the Temple¹s existence, 70 A.D., the priests sacrificed over 250,000 lambs. "Behold, the Lamb of God."
Jesus is the Lamb in many ways. During His Passion, when Jesus stands before Pilate, St. John¹s Gospel makes specific note of the time. "It was the day of preparation of the Passover; it was about the sixth hour" (John 19:14). St. John knew and so did any other Jewish reader or listener that it was at the sixth hour that the priests of the Temple began slaughtering the Passover lambs. "Behold, the Lamb of God." St. John also comments that on the cross Jesus¹ legs are not broken. This was to fulfill the prescriptions of the Passover Meal from Exodus. "You shall not break any of its bones" (Exodus 12:46). "Behold, the Lamb of God."
Jesus is both priest and victim in this new and definitive Passover sacrifice. That is St. John¹s message, and it is a message repeated throughout the New Testament. St. Peter tells us, "Realize that you were deliveredŠ by Christ¹s blood beyond all price; the blood of a spotless, unblemished lamb" (I Peter 1:18-19). Even in the great Book of Revelation the lamb is present, as a loud voice from heaven cries, "Now have salvation and power comeŠ. For the accuser of our brothers is cast outŠ. They defeated him by the blood of the lamb" (Revelation 12:10-11). "Behold, the Lamb of God." In one of the most beautiful passages in all the New Testament letters, Hebrews reminds us of the true value of the blood of the lamb. "For if the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of a heifer¹s ashes can sanctify those who are defiled so that their flesh is cleansed, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself up unblemished to God, cleans our consciences from dead works to worship the living God" (Hebrews 9:13-14). And what is this "worship of the living God"? It is the Eucharist.
St. Paul meticulously repeats what is recounted in the Gospels. Jesus "took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me" (I Corinthians 11:25). St. Paul wants there to be no doubt in anyone¹s mind that the Christian is to relive what Jesus did at the Last Supper. It is no facsimile, no artificiality, no masquerade. It is a living remembrance. It is the real thing. St. Paul writes, "Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival "with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" (I Corinthians 5:7-8). Our Passover lamb is the unleavened bread. Our festival is the Mass. "Behold, the Lamb of God." Christ is the sacrificial lamb, and there is no worship without sacrifice.
Sacrifice is essential to worship. I recall the pointed observation of Mohandas Gandhi, when he called "worship without sacrifice" an absurdity of the modern age. When John the Baptist pointed to the "Lamb of God", it was a lamb of sacrifice, into whose blood every believer would be plunged and whose body and blood would become food for eternal life.
"Lamb of God" are not merely words but words that should come alive for us as Catholics. They speak of a sacrifice in which we participate. The "worship of the living God" is the participation of each Catholic believer in the one and perfect sacrifice of the Lamb of God. "If you want to mark your covenant with God, to seal your covenant with God, to renew your covenant with God, you have to eat the Lamb‹the paschal lamb Who is our unleavened bread" (Scott Hahn, "The Lamb¹s Supper", p. 26). That sounds familiar. We have heard it said by Our Lord Himself. "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you" (John 6:54).