‘Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who takes away the sins of the world’
Sometimes we use words a lot, even to the point of perhaps overusing them. Sorry is a good example: it is perhaps something of a national characteristic – that we as British people apologise for everything just in case. This has led some people to the point of view that familiarity breeds contempt: that the more often we say sorry, the less we mean it, our words are empty and our society debased, rude and squalid. Whereas a more charitable interpretation sees something of love, care, concern, and humility in our apologising: it is a Christian thing to do, and what we say and do affects who and what we are as people, and the more we say or do something the greater its effects upon our lives and characters – the more it can form us and the people that we are. If we genuinely say sorry to God and each other and mean it, and amend our lives accordingly it can only be a good thing.
When John the Baptist greets his cousin in this morning’s Gospel, the words he uses are both familiar and strange. We, as Christians are used to saying and hearing the phrase ‘the Lamb of God’. We are used to it at Mass, we are used to seeing it on the Signs of public houses called the Lamb and Flag, or as the badge of Preston North End Football Club.
While the image is familiar, it is worth spending a few moments to consider exactly what John is saying about Jesus. The image of a lamb brings to mind a passage in the prophet Isaiah, in the Song of the Suffering Servant, who ‘like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb’ (Isa 53:7), a prophecy that will be fulfilled in Holy Week, on Good Friday. Yet here, just after the Baptism of Our Lord in the Jordan, when the Spirit descends at the beginning of Our Lord’s public ministry, before the first sign of turning water into wine at the marriage of Cana, we see in John’s description of Jesus a prophetic utterance which points forward to Jesus’ death on the Cross for the world. So then, from the very beginning, as with the gift of myrrh at Bethlehem, we see the culmination at Calvary, the beginning points to the end (and beyond). The other image of the lamb which comes to mind is that of the Passover lamb, by which the people of Israel are freed from slavery to journey to the Promised Land. Yet Jesus is the Passover Lamb who will free all of humanity from sin for all time.
In being baptised by John the Baptist, Jesus was doing something which he did not need to do, he who was without sin did not need to be cleansed from sin, but in his baptism Jesus gives us an example, for us to follow. It is a sign of humility and obedience which we as Christians are to follow: it is how we are to shape our lives, in humble obedience to the example and teaching of Christ, it’s how to be a Christian. It is also how God gives us his Holy Spirit, as a gift which we receive and use with humility.
From the beginning of His public ministry, and even from the gifts offered by the Three Wise Men, Jesus’ life and mission is to be understood in terms of the death he will suffer. It is this sacrificial, self-giving love which God pours out on his World, which streams from our Saviour’s pierced side upon the cross. This is the wood, marked with blood which saves not only the people of Israel, but the entire world. This makes our peace with God, and our peace with one another. It is this recognition of who and what Jesus really is that is capable of showing us all who and what we really are. We can live our lives truly, wholly, and fully, loved by God and loving one another.
That is why we are here today, in a church, at a celebration of Mass, so that the sacrifice of Calvary will be re-presented, made as real for us as it was on a hill outside Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago. As we approach the altar, this is what we are to receive, the Body and Blood of Christ, the self same body and blood which were nailed to the Cross for our sins and the sins of the whole world. Our hands will hold and our lips will touch him who created the entire universe. How can we not fail to be shocked by the generosity of a God who gives himself to us in such a personal way, in a way that we do not deserve? Yet, we can never deserve such a gift, that is why God takes the initiative and gives himself to us, freely and gladly – like the Father of the Prodigal Son, God rushes to meet us, to embrace us and to celebrate with us, to show his love for us. God became a human being at Christmas so that we might become divine, through our baptism and our participation at the altar, the feast of the Lamb, so that we can become what God wants us to be – his people, sharing his body and blood, strengthened for the journey in body, mind, and spirit, to become what God wants us to be – united with him and one another.
The Mass is the sacrament of unity, uniting heaven and earth through the sacrifice of Calvary, making all humanity to share the body and blood of Our Saviour Jesus Christ, feeding on him so that we may become what he is, to share eternity with him, and to live lives of faith and show this faith in our lives in everything we say, or think, or do, that the world may believe. Our faith must then have an effect upon our lives, which other people can see, it must make a difference, and it will, because of our faith and because God gives himself to strengthen us to be able to do this. So then, let us join the Wedding banquet of the Lamb and enter into the mystery of God’s self-giving love, nourished by Word and Sacrament, to grow in faith and love, and share it with others, so that they may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory dominion and power, now and forever.