As most of you know, my mother has attended Mass at our parish since she moved to Vancouver in 2011, which is a great joy to me. But this blessing can have its down side.
On her first Sunday here, the greeter asked where she’d like to sit.
“The front row please,” she answered.
“Oh, you really don't want to do that,” the usher said. “The pastor is really boring.”
“Do you happen to know who I am?” Mom inquired.
“No," he said. “I’m the pastor's mother,” she replied indignantly.
“Do you know who I am?” the usher asked.
“No,” she said.
“Good!” he answered.
All right, it’s not a true story—at least not the part about my mother. And I hope the part about the pastor being boring isn’t true either.
But to tell the truth, making sure each homily catches the attention of most of the congregation comes at a certain cost. Keep it lively can sometimes mean keeping the homily simpler than it ought to be.
I found this out when I gave a longer-than-usual, more-serious-than-usual homily at a weekday Mass recently. Afterwards, a keen young parishioner said “I wish you’d preach like that all the time.”
So today I thought I’d try a more-serious-than-usual homily, though I will try to make sure it’s not a longer-than-usual one.
Because our Gospel today goes straight to the heart of why we’re here this morning. Not because the Church says we must go to Mass every Sunday. Not because we need this time of community with other parishioners. Not even to hear a good homily.
We are here, first and foremost, because the Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world.
“Lamb of God” is the title that St. John the Baptist uses to reveal Jesus to the world. In the verses just before the ones we’ve read this morning, the Baptist tells people who he is—he’s not the Messiah, he’s not the prophet Elijah, he’s not the Prophet.
And he tells the priests that there’s someone in their midst, someone they don’t recognize, who will answer all their questions.
Only one day later, in the text we’ve just heard, the moment to reveal Jesus has come. John could announce he is the Messiah. He could call him King, or the new Moses. Instead, he announces that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
The title’s not as obvious as Messiah or King or Lord. The Jews would need to wrestle with it—just as we do.
The first place to look if we want to understand the meaning of “lamb of God” is in the Old Testament. And the obvious place is the Book of Exodus, which tells the story of the unblemished Passover lamb, whose blood was put on the doors of the Israelites to protect and spare them.
This lamb—and its blood—are “the symbols of Israel’s redemption at the first Passover.” (CCC 608)
The Prophet Isaiah adds to our understanding of this title. The Suffering Servant of the Lord is “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter.” (Is. 53:7b) In the same passage, we read the prophecy that his life is “an offering for sin” and that he bears “the sin of many.”
The Prophet Jeremiah becomes a figure of Christ when he says of himself “I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter.” (Jer. 11:19).
The New Testament sums this up when St. Paul writes “Our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.” (1 Cor. 5:7) St. Peter tells us that we have been redeemed “with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish.” (1 Pt. 1:19)
Small wonder that John the Baptist was inspired by the sight of Jesus to reveal him as the Lamb of God. No other words could have expressed so briefly the nature of Christ’s mission nor its fulfillment of all God’s promises through the ages.
The question this morning is whether those words still speak to us with power.
When we pray “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world”—repeating the Baptist’s words not once but three times—is the reality of the new Passover in the back of our minds? Do these words put us in touch with the big picture at Mass—that we’ve been redeemed by the saving blood of Jesus, poured out on the Cross and poured over us in the Eucharist?
Father Xavier was visiting us this weekend, and offered the 9 a.m. Mass. He just headed out to the airport on his way to India for vacation. When I asked him what he planned to say in his homily, he said that the prayer “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us” is the one prayer God always answers immediately.
I asked him to explain. He pointed out that less than ten seconds after we pray to the Lamb of God for mercy and for peace, the priest lifts up the Host and says “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world.”
In other words, here is the answer to your prayers—Jesus is here, to spare you, to save you, and to heal you.
Let’s make these words truly a moment of adoration, petition and grace—not a routine, but a statement of our faith in the power of Christ to save us through his Eucharistic sacrifice.