HOMILY for the 2nd Sunday (A)
Isa 49:3. 5-6; Ps 39; 1 Cor 1:1-3; John 1:29-34
“Behold, the Lamb of God…” These are such familiar words to us. But, perhaps a better translation would be “Behold, the Kid of God”! Because what St John the Baptist actually called Jesus – in Aramaic, we expect – was talya de ‘laha. And the word talya in Hebrew has a double meaning. It means both ‘boy’ or ‘servant’, and also ‘lamb’ – our word ‘kid’ comes closest, I think, to conveying this.
And this might explain why our First Reading is coupled with today’s Gospel. For the servant whom God is speaking to has now come, as promised. John thus points to Jesus, declaring him to be God’s servant. Last week we recalled how the Father’s voice from heaven had said: “This is my beloved Son”. Or indeed, if we keep the word talya in mind, perhaps the voice said: “This is my beloved boy”. So, the Father declares Jesus to be his talya, his Boy, a rather intimate term. Then, as soon as the Baptizer sees Jesus, he declares that here is God’s talya, his Servant, a term rich in prophetic resonance, reminding us of Isaiah’s prophecies of the Christ who would come to do God’s work of calling God’s beloved people back to him.
However the evangelist, St John, chooses a theologically rich meaning to the word talya, so that Jesus is not just God’s boy or servant, but also the Lamb of God. Thus in the original Greek of John’s Gospel, Jesus is the amnos tou Theou, and the word amnos, which refers to a sheep under one year old, only occurs four times in the New Testament. If we look in the Septuagint, which is the revered Greek translation of the Old Testament, the word is used in Exodus to refer to the lambs offered in sacrifice to God in the Temple. Hence, St John is telling us that Jesus is the sacrificial Lamb of God. More specifically, it is by being the sacrificial lamb, by the complete offering of his life in love, that Jesus carries out the work given to him. Thus, Jesus is tayla de ‘laha in every sense: both boy-servant and lamb.
But it is not just Israel that is being brought back to God but the whole world. Isaiah says: “I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa 49:6). Notice that even this language is sacrificial since the light burns by consuming oil in the lamp; a candle gives light only by sacrificing itself and being consumed by the fire. Hence St John says that Jesus is the Lamb of God who “takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). Thus we are reminded of the universal mission given to God’s servant in Isaiah, and also of the sacrificial aspect of that mission, whether as the light-giving lamp or sacrificial lamb given for all peoples.
This idea that Christ has come for all is one that the Liturgy has lingered over for a few weeks now. It was made manifest at Epiphany when the Magi, representing the nations of the world, came to the infant Christ. Then, last week we saw how Christ, by descending into the waters of baptism, identifies with and extends his salvation to all of sinful humanity, even those cast out of communities. And today, Christ’s universal mission is being re-iterated. But what is being made more explicit is how Jesus will bring salvation to Mankind. We had a hint of this on the feast of our Lord’s Baptism. It is through baptism, to which all are invited, that we shall be saved. More precisely, we are saved by what baptism symbolizes. As St Paul says: “All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death” (Rom 6:3). So, Christ’s descent into the waters prefigures his descent into death, because it is by Jesus’ death that we are saved.
Here, then, is the full meaning of Jesus being called the Lamb of God. For it is through his sacrificial death that Christ takes away the sin of the whole world. His death on the Cross destroys our death, the death of Adam’s sin. And thus, having overcome sin and death, Jesus makes it possible for us to be with God, walking with him in friendship as Adam once did in Eden. Hence St Paul goes on to say in his letter to the Romans: “We were buried therefore with [Christ] by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4).
Thus, Jesus has done the work given to him by the Father. In the words of Isaiah, he has brought Jacob back to God, and raised up the tribes of Jacob (cf Isa 49:5-6), and, of course, this applies to not just Jacob but all God’s children. So, by the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, not just Israel but all humanity, has been restored to friendship with God; the Servant’s mission is accomplished.
Now, the goal of the servant’s work is key if we’re to understand what sacrifice is about. For sacrifice is not principally about the killing of something, or placating a bloodthirsty God. Rather, St Augustine says that “a true sacrifice is every work that is done in order that we may cling to God in holy communion, that is to say, [every work] that has a reference to that goal of the good, through which we may be truly blessed”.
As such, sacrifice is ordered to renewed fellowship; reconciliation and union with God. This is the goal of the servant in Isaiah. So, the work that Jesus does to accomplish this is a “true sacrifice” not because he has to die but because of the goal of that sacrificial work, namely, that Man may cling to God in holy communion and, so, be truly blessed. The fact that Jesus accepted the Passion and died a Victim of humanity’s sinful inhumanity serves, at the very least, to show just how far he would go to bring about Mankind’s greatest good: blessedness. Christ’s death on the Cross shows the extent and quality of his divine love. So great was God’s love for Mankind that he became Man, and then even freely offered his life so that Mankind’s rebellion and violence might be broken, and we might be reconciled. Thus, Jesus said: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). For this love is stronger than death, and restores Man to friendship with God.
The result of Christ saving work is that we, women and men, can do this: celebrate the Mass. We come together as God’s friends and in fellowship with one another to eat and drink at this sacred banquet. St Thomas observes that sacrifices often end with a meal because it is a sign that the goal of the sacrifice has been accomplished: friendship is restored. Thus, the Eucharist is both a sacrifice and a meal, for in the Mass we behold Christ, the Lamb of God whose sacrifice, made present in the Mass, makes possible our holy communion with God and one another. Here, Christ, the talya de ‘laha accomplishes his work and raises us to new life with our Father. So here in the Mass we are, as St Paul put it, “called to be saints together with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:2).