We hear in the Gospel these familiar words “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world..” Of course we recognize these words because they are the words spoken by the priest and the Liturgy just before we receive Holy Communion.
A friend of mine, back home in Canada shared with me that when she and her family go to Mass, when the priest elevates the host and proclaims the words: “Behold the Lamb of God! Behold Him who takes away the sins of the world;” her 6 year old will snuggle up to her and whisper “Look Mom. It’s your favorite part of Mass.” She shared with me, “That part of Mass gets me every time.”
Those words “Lamb of God” are some of the most succinct and moving summaries of our Catholic Faith. It has so much historical context, and so many radical implications. It’s a culmination and fulfillment of prophecies, and a door opening to wider understanding. Its proclamation in the Mass is perfectly placed, and its original proclamation in the Bible even more so.
Where do we get the notion of a lamb as anything other than sheep that roam and eat and say baa? How did this evolve into a symbol so vital to our faith?
It begins in Old Testament history. Israel, through a series of circumstances, ends up in Egypt, as slaves. They suffer this oppression for many years, waiting and praying for their deliverer. And then God sends Moses. We know the story… God sends a series of plagues, and each time, Pharaoh ignores God’s word and continues to oppress the Hebrews. Finally, God sends a final judgment on Egypt, He sends the angel of death to strike down the first born of Egypt. But God provides a special way for his people to be spared from this awful plague. In Exodus chapter 12 you can read the story of the first Passover meal, in which a lamb is slain, prepared, and eaten – and its blood is smeared on the doorway of the houses. Each house marked with this blood is saved from the death that spreads throughout the land. Pharaoh relents and lets the people go.
God commands that His people commemorate this event by celebrating the Passover every year, to sacrifice a lamb and to ritually remember what God has done for them. And so we come to the Gospel today. John the Baptist announces to the people that the Lamb of God, the Savior is here:
The Lamb – that saves us from death.
The Lamb – that frees us from slavery.
The Lamb – that takes away our sins.
Part of why St. John’s Gospel includes this scene in his Gospel is because, at that time, the early church was facing two heresies. One claimed that the Eucharist was only symbolic, and the other denied Jesus’ divinity. Sound familiar?
John’s Gospel lays the hammer down on these two heresies in the very first chapter. When John recounts John the Baptist calling Jesus the “Lamb of God,” he’s setting the stage for understanding the institution of the Eucharist. Jesus is the Lamb! Jesus is the meal. He is the sacrifice. We consume Him, and He frees us from our slavery to sin, He frees us from death. But He’s not just “the Lamb,” He’s the Lamb of God.
Jesus is the one whose coming was prophesied in hundreds of different ways. He’s the fulfillment of all the prophesies. He lived and died and rose again thousands of years ago. Yet he’s still with us today – in this tiny Host, a great mystery.
He is my meal, my food. He feeds and nourishes me through the Eucharist. Through this food, He heals and saves my soul. He forgives my sins. Yet He is God. Infinite and eternal and beyond my understanding. He’s here. Right here in Mass, in front of me. “Behold Him.” Raise your eyes and look at Him.
He is God. He’s right here in Mass, in front of me. He wants to free me from slavery – slavery to sin. He wants to free me from death. He’s the one who can make me fully alive. Every time we go to Mass, we can also look upon the same Christ who shrouds the fullness of God’s glory. When we see Christ in the Eucharist, we have no reason to shield our eyes. Instead, Christ in the Eucharist looks so unassuming that we need faith to believe that such a simple sight could really be God.
Saint Faustina writes in her Diary:
O Blessed Host, enchantment of all heaven, Though Your beauty be veiled and captured in a crumb of bread, Strong faith tears away that veil.
He sacrificed Himself for us so that in the end we might behold Him in the fullness of His glory, and that's more than we could ever ask for.
God bless, Fr. Dennis