Second Sunday in Ordinary Time A
Have you ever played word association? It’s a rather simple game. Someone in the group says a word, and then the others say the first related word that comes to mind. For example, if I said, “coat,” others might respond, “warm,” or, “heavy,” or “fur.” Make sense? Let’s play a few rounds…
Winter: “cold”…“snow”…“long.” [At the first Mass, someone said, “miserable”; at the second, “lovely.”]
Lamb: “soft”…“cute”…“cuddly.” [I was hoping someone might say, “chops,” or, “mint jelly”; at the second Mass, I did get, “tasty!”]
“Behold, the Lamb of God!”
In the time of John the Baptist, if he’d played word association with the word, “lamb,” he’d have likely gotten responses of, “blood,” or, “sin,” or, “death.” You see, those who first heard John would have been familiar with the worship in the temple of Jerusalem. They would have known—probably firsthand—that everyday, faithful Jews brought lambs to be offered in sacrifice. To bring a lamb for sacrifice was to ritually say, “What’s about to happen to this innocent lamb is what, by rights, ought to happen to me. I’m a sinner, and there’s a high price to be paid for sin: death. As this lamb’s body is to be broken, so is my heart broken in sorrow for having disobeyed the law of God. As this lamb’s blood is about to be spilt, so I’m pouring out my heart and crying, ‘Lord, have mercy!’”
That’s a slightly different word association than, “cute and cuddly,” isn’t it? And it makes a huge difference when the title, “Lamb of God,” is applied to Jesus. John the Baptist didn’t point to Jesus with a warm and fuzzy idea in his mind, in effect saying, “Would you take a look at this really nice guy!” No—instead, John’s saying something that really couldn’t have made much sense to folks until after Jesus’ Passion and Death. Only then they could have recalled his words and thought, “That’s why this man had to die! Although innocent, he’s taken upon himself the full weight of my sins, and the sins of the whole world. What we’d seen in the temple in symbol has now taken place in all actuality. This Jesus has died in my place!”
I draw attention to this contrast in hopes that we can take away two basic but critical points this Sunday.
The first: What we think about Jesus’ true identity makes all the difference in the world. Most everyone would agree that Jesus was a real historical figure. Many non-Christians, even some atheists, would say he was a wise teacher, who imparted lessons from which we can all benefit. But it’s altogether different to believe, as Christians do, that Jesus is true God and true man—the divine Word made human flesh, as we’ve been recalling and celebrating these last six weeks or so. Only if God incarnate can Jesus truly bridge the gap between heaven and earth. If he’s a really nice guy, then Jesus can inspire me; but if he is—as John the Baptist goes on to testify—the only begotten Son of God, then Jesus can save me from my sins.
The second: There are many times when we use the same words, but make very different associations. For some, winter is “lovely,” but for others, it’s “miserable.” The same happens when we speak of Jesus, or God, or the Church, or spirituality. Lots of people use these words, yet meaning lots and lots of different things. But because we want to be polite and accepting of others and their viewpoints, because we don’t want to rock the boat, or because we aren’t confident in our knowledge of the Catholic religion, we’re all too likely these days to say, “But it’s all good! It’s all the same!” If you handed me a $50 bill asking for change, and I handed you just four quarters in return, would you accept them without question? Of course not! But it’s all money, isn’t it?!? If we wouldn’t accept this exchange as “the same,” we likewise ought not to settle for something lesser or even counterfeit in matters of faith. It would be one thing if we were just playing word association…but it’s quite another when it’s a matter of salvation. What we need to pursue isn’t the path the least challenging or controversial; we need to purse the way that’s true. Certainly, we should respectfully enter into dialogue with those who believe differently than ourselves so that we might better understand each other. But we don’t do anybody any favors to pretend that our differences aren’t real or don’t matter. It’s so crucial that we have a good working knowledge of our faith and seek clear ways of explaining it to others.
“Lamb of God… Lamb of God…. Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world.” In every Mass, three times in a row, the entire congregation calls out to Jesus by this name. And what is happening at the altar at that very moment? The Sacred Host is being broken. As those who first heard John the Baptist speak of the lamb and associated the word with offerings made in the temple, so for us this language and gesture should call to mind the offering Jesus made of himself on the Cross. Blessed are those called to the Supper of the Lamb! Blessed, indeed, are we who are saved by his sacrifice!