domenica 15 gennaio 2017

«Ecce Agnus Dei»

This second Sunday in Ordinary Time still reflects Christmastide that we left behind last week. Today’s gospel is connected with the baptism of Jesus. The protagonist of this liturgy is John the Baptist, who accompanied us through Advent and Christmas up to last Sunday. In today’s gospel, he bears his witness to Jesus. Maybe this is the most important moment in his life. Admittedly, he had started to testify to Jesus even from his mother’s womb: when Mary expecting Jesus visited Elizabeth pregnant with John, this one leaped for joy, feeling the presence of Jesus. One of the prefaces of Advent depicts the scene as follows: “John the Baptist sang of his coming;” and immediately afterwards, referring to his adult testimony, it adds: “and proclaimed his presence when he came.” This is the great merit of John the Baptist: to recognize Jesus and to show his presence in the world.

How come does John insistently repeat that he did not know Jesus? Was he not his cousin? Of course, he knew him; but he precisely knew him as his cousin, without knowing who really Jesus was. He learned of the real identity of Jesus when he baptized him. It was at that moment that he saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon him; and, since he had had a revelation about that, he realized that Jesus was not just his cousin, although greater than him, but the Messiah expected by Israel.

To introduce Jesus to his disciples, John uses a strange term: “Lamb of God.” We are familiar with it, because we use it frequently during the Mass: at the Gloria, at the breaking of the bread, and at the invitation to communion, when the priest exactly repeats the same words as John: “Behold the Lamb of God” (Ecce Agnus Dei). In the last book of the Bible, Revelation, “Lamb” is the most common title used to refer to Jesus. Okay, but what does it mean? It is an ancient way to express Jesus’ role as Redeemer. We find in this title two references to the Old Testament. The first is to the suffering Servant of the Lord, of whom the prophet Isaiah speaks in the second part of his book. If you remember, last Sunday we read the first of the four oracles of the Servant; today the first reading is the second oracle. Well, the fourth oracle, at a certain point, says: “Like a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep before the shearers, he was silent and opened not his mouth” (Is 53:7). Some scholars even pointed out that in Aramaic, the language spoken at that time in Palestine, the same word (alia’) was used both for “servant” and “lamb.” The second reference is to the paschal lamb, which the Israelites slaughtered and ate on the night of their departure from Egypt. The blood of the lamb, applied to the doorposts, saved them from the angel of death who slew on that night the first-born of the Egyptians.

Of the “Lamb of God” John says that he “takes away the sin of the world.” It is exactly what, according to Isaiah, the Servant of the Lord would do. “He was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins … The Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all … He gives his life as an offering for sin … Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear … He shall take away the sins of many and win pardon for their offenses” (Is 53: John, at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, discloses the deepest meaning of his mission: Jesus has come to baptize with the Holy Spirit, that is to say, he has come to deliver humankind from sin. Jesus is our Redeemer; and redemption took place through his death, which was like a sacrifice offered in atonement for the sins of all.

But the witness of John comes to its climax when he states: “Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.” Evidently, he too had heard the voice of the Father when Jesus came up from the water, and now he bears witness to that revelation. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world because he is not a simple man, but the Son of God.