First reading Isaiah 49:3,5-6
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 39(40):2,4,7-10
Second reading 1 Corinthians 1:1-3
Gospel John 1:29-34
“A man is coming after me who ranks before me because he existed before me. I did not know him myself, and yet it was to reveal him to Israel that I came baptising with water…” St John then goes on to say once again, “I did not know him myself, but he who sent me to baptise with water had said to me, ‘the man on whom you see the Spirit come down and rest is the one who is going to baptise with the Holy Spirit.’” Isn’t it strange that St John says, “I did not know him myself”? He says this twice, which tells us that his words are important. What does he mean “I did not know him myself”? After all, John was Jesus’ cousin. He even leapt in his mother’s womb at the presence of his unborn cousin!
Well, to clarify, the Greek language, which is the language of the New Testament, has more than one way to say I “know” something. The term that St John happens to use is derived from the verb “to see”, which suggests that the knowledge he is talking about here is not one merely of being acquainted with Jesus but is to do with perception and beholding. Another way of translating St John’s repeated saying would be, “I myself did not perceive him.” This offers us some clarity. St John knew Jesus as a man and as his cousin, but he did not perceive who he really was. So how did he come to “know” Jesus’ true identity? Well St John himself tells us: “I saw the Spirit coming down on him from heaven like a dove and resting on him.” It was by the Holy Spirit that the Lord was made known to St John who perceived him not. And what, by the Holy Spirit, did St John come to perceive about the identity of his cousin? Again, St John told us in the Gospel today. What does he say? “Look, there is the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world…” Now, brothers and sisters, these are most familiar words to us who hear them at every Mass, but do we understand them? These are most strange words. Firstly, he says “look” or “behold”. This word often means more than to look with one’s eyes. In fact the word is related to that perception that St John twice denies having had until the Spirit revealed Jesus’ true identity to him. So here he’s inviting his hearers to “behold” or “perceive” or “discern” the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That invitation is extended to us, here and now, who are hearing his words.
But, in order for us to perceive the lamb of God, we need to know what the lamb of God refers to. What an odd saying! Notice St John says, “the lamb”, not “a lamb”. This tells us that he is referring to a concrete and known reality, something John’s disciples understood. “The lamb” in Judaism could only refer to the Passover lamb, a central aspect of the way they lived their faith. Each year the lamb was ritually slaughtered as a sacrifice and then eaten by all Jewish people as a living memorial and participation in the first Passover, the night on which God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. At the first Passover, it was the blood of the lamb painted on their doorposts and the eating of the lamb’s flesh that saved the Israelites from the destroyer on the night God led them out of Egypt (Ex 12:1-13). Every year since, the Passover lamb was sacrificed as a living memorial of that definitive and saving night. St John says here, “behold/perceive the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” It’s no coincidence then that the Gospel of John later on specifies that Jesus was crucified on the day of preparation for the Passover, that is, the day the Passover lambs were ritually slaughtered, and their blood offered on the altar (Jn 19:14). In fact, Jesus died at the very same hour.
Dear friends, something profound was revealed to St John by the Holy Spirit, and which he has revealed to us. Jesus is the lamb, sacrificed for us on the altar of the cross to take away our sins. It is his blood alone, and the eating of his flesh, that can save us from the destroyer, just as God saved his people at the very first Passover. This speaks of the wonderful mystery and the necessity of what we have here at Mass. For the Mass is not just a Catholic get-together around a table. At Mass the sacrifice of the lamb of God is made present for us in our own day. We, when we fulfil his command to eat his flesh and drink his blood, partake of that Passover lamb who alone can take away the sin of the world, and therefore the fruit of sin, which is death.
Dear brothers and sisters, the Mass itself, in St John the Baptist’s words, invites us to “behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. In the Mass everything points toward him. Our Gospel today explicitly invites us in St John’s words to truly perceive and discern him present to us. This is not only an act of the bodily eyes, but of the eyes of faith – to see more deeply. But like St John, we cannot do this except by the Holy Spirit who alone can reveal Jesus. Pray, therefore, that we might have the grace to truly discern, with faith, the one who is present to us in the Sacred Liturgy today. For if we do so perceive him, we shall also perceive our salvation.