Last Sunday we celebrated the Baptism of the Lord and we heard the account of Jesus’ baptism from the Gospel of Matthew; this Sunday, the 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, our Gospel reading is John’s version of Jesus’ baptism. And in this Gospel, we hear of Jesus’ baptism from the perspective of John the Baptist.
When he sees Jesus, John the Baptist says, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Where else do we hear this phrase, over and over again? At communion, when the priest holds up the chalice and the host, or the Body of Blood of Jesus. The Mass is filled with lines taken from Scripture. Jesus is often referred to as the Lamb of God, but why? What exactly does this mean? Understanding why tells us about Jesus and about what he came to do.
The “lamb” has several allusions throughout Scripture. First, what animal is used in the Passover? A lamb. The Lord instructs Moses and the Israelites to celebrate a ritual meal on the night He is going to free from them slavery in Egypt. The lamb is central to this meal. Ever since, Jews have gathered to celebrate the Passover and when they do so, they eat roasted lamb as a reminder of God’s saving action. The New Testament writers depict Jesus as the new Passover Lamb, who has come to die on the Cross as a sacrifice to God to free humanity from our slavery to sin.
Lambs were also used by the Jews in Temple worship. There was of course just one Temple – in Jerusalem – and there Jewish priests would offer various sacrifices, including lambs, to God as ceremonial or symbolic atonement for sins. Of course, these sacrifices could not truly atone for sins, and so the sacrifices were made again and again. When the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, Jewish temple worship and the sacrifices that were a part of it came to an end. Christians saw in this the fact that these sacrifices were no longer necessary, since they had been replaced by Jesus’ one, perfect sacrifice on the Cross. And we participate again in this one sacrifice at every Mass.
A third allusion to lambs in Scripture comes from the Prophet Isaiah, who speaks multiple times of a so-called “Suffering Servant of the Lord”. This mysterious figure obtains the forgiveness of the sins of others by going to his death, “like a lamb led to the slaughter.” In our first reading from Isaiah, this Suffering Servant speaks for the first time. He says that, as God’s servant, he has come to do more than just save Israel – that is not enough for God. He also comes to be “a light to the nations, so that [the Lord’s] salvation reach to the ends of the earth.” “The nations” is always code for the whole world. Christians identify the Suffering Servant of Isaiah as of course none other than Jesus Christ, who came to suffer and die for our salvation and the salvation of the whole world.
So Jesus is the Lamb of God, the new Passover lamb, the Suffering Servant of the Lord, who has come, as John the Baptist adds, “to take away the sins of the world.” That’s why Jesus came – to take away the sins of the world. He came not just to take away the punishment for sin, but also to take away sin itself – to remove the sinfulness found in the hearts of human beings. In other words, Jesus became man so that we might become like God. Elsewhere in Scripture, Jesus says, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” Perhaps you have heard that and thought, “How in the world am I going to do that?!?” That is a very high standard – the highest possible standard! Yikes! I can only speak for myself, but I don’t know if I have ever lived a single day (after reaching the age of reason of course) when I did not commit a sin of some sort or another. Has there ever been a day when I did not at least have an uncharitable thought about someone, grumble under my breath about something, subtly try to prove myself better than someone else in some way, and so on. Sadly, I doubt it! No matter how good my day starts out, no matter how connected to God I might feel when I get up, it doesn’t take long for me to do something wrong. On our own, of course, it is just not possible to free ourselves from sin. We can’t take away our own sin. But because Jesus came to baptize us with the Holy Spirit, he has made it possible.
Sin means turning away from God in some way – in a big way or perhaps a more minor way. Taken to its extreme end, that’s what hell is – perpetually turned away from God. Heaven, on the other hand, is the opposite – there is no sin; we are made perfect by God and are completely united with Him. So it’s not possible to go to heaven and still commit sin; it’s not possible to go to heaven with even an attachment to sin. Before you say, “We’re all doomed!”, let me remind you: that’s why Jesus came. John the Baptist said so in our Gospel. Jesus himself said so. And Jesus being God has the power to do it. So let us take comfort in that.
However, that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing for us to do. Jesus after all did say, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect,” which implies that we do have to take action. In our second reading, St. Paul says we are “called to be holy”. In other words, we are called by God to strive to be holy, to become more and more like Him. Jesus calls us to have an active and not a passive role in our sanctification. Naturally, we are fallen creatures; because of original sin we all have this tendency to sin, and so we are going to mess up again and again. However, we don’t give up – we keep picking ourselves up when we fall, dust ourselves off (by which I mean going to confession), resolve to do better, and go forward with confidence in God’s mercy, because Jesus is the Lamb of God who came to take away the sins of the world.
I hesitate to use phrases that begin with: “There are two kinds of people…”, lumping everyone who has ever lived into two neat categories. However, for the sake of brevity I am going to use it now. It often seems that there are two kinds of people: those who don’t seem to be aware of their sins or at least are not bothered by them, and those who are aware of their sins and carry around a lot of guilt. Yes, this is a way too simplistic way to describe people. There’s much more of a spectrum. But I am especially worried for people who fall into the first group. But to everyone in the second group, I would like to say that you need to remind yourself again and again that Jesus is the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world – including yours. If you are not perfect now, do not worry, do not get discouraged, and do not give up. Recognize that you will always be in need of a Savior, and also that you already have one. Learn from past mistakes: what do I need to do differently? Keep praying – or begin praying. Go to confession.
I think there is such a thing as a healthy amount of dissatisfaction with ourselves in this life. After all, people who are completely satisfied with themselves usually become insufferable and are hard to be around. And a healthy amount of personal dissatisfaction can spur us on to make positive changes in our lives. When we recognize something in ourselves that we don’t particularly like, we have a few choices: ignore it and pretend everything’s fine – not healthy; acknowledge it but feel that there’s nothing we can do about it and despair – also not healthy; or acknowledge it and resolve to become better and then actively try to do so. This applies to all kinds of things: not just sinful behavior per se but also bad habits or bad personality traits and so on. For example, if you feel like you waste a lot of time – oh I don’t know, on your phone perhaps – you can just carry on with the status quo and feel that nagging dissatisfaction forever, or you can despair that you will ever change and do nothing, or you can decide to do something about it, sit down and think about what you need to do differently, and then start making those changes little by little. And because we follow Jesus Christ, we can also bring him into the picture and ask for his help and offer up to him our efforts, however halting or however half-hearted they may be.
The bottom line is: don’t settle, and don’t give up. Jesus is the Lamb of God and he came to take away your sins – all of them – so that you might be free of them and one day enter into heaven, welcomed and received into the Father’s heavenly embrace.