• Is 49:3, 5-6
• Ps 40:2, 4, 7-8, 8-9, 10
• 1 Cor 1:1-3
• Jn 1:29-34
Taken as a whole, today’s readings can, I think, be summarized in a single sentence: The Son of God became a servant so that by becoming a sacrifice he would be the Savior of mankind.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these names and titles, beginning with the final statement from today’s Gospel, a declaration uttered by John the Baptist at the Jordan River: “Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.” This testimony to the identity of Jesus is a key theme in the Gospel of John, as indicated in the Evangelist’s theological commentary following Jesus’ discourse to Nicodemus: “He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (Jn 3:18).
And, at the close of his Gospel, the Apostle John explains that his testimony was written so “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:31). We cannot begin to understand fully the servanthood and the sacrifice of Jesus without first recognizing that he is the Son of God.
The Old Testament contains a number of prophetic passages about a coming servant of the Lord who would establish God’s reign and being peace to Israel. Isaiah has several “servant songs”, the most famous being found in chapters 52 and 53 (and read during Holy Week). The servant song in chapter 49 closely aligns the servant with Israel, which highlights the fact that salvation, as Jesus told the Samaritan woman, is from the Jews (Jn 4:22).
But the servant emerges from Israel; he is a man with a singular identity and possessing unique qualities, through whom salvation will come not only to Israel but to all men: “I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” The season of Christmas, of course, focuses on the remarkable and radical fact that the Son became a servant, leaving the glory of heaven to dwell among men.
The eternal Word, in becoming man, willingly became a servant and embraced the work of sacrifice set before him. “From the beginning of his public life,” the Catechism states, “at his baptism, Jesus is the ‘Servant’, wholly consecrated to the redemptive work that he will accomplish by the ‘baptism’ of his Passion” (par 565). One can only imagine the shock caused by John the Baptist’s emphatic exclamation, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
Under the Law, there were several animals that were sacrificed at various times for the sins of the people; these included bulls, goats, pigeons, doves, and sheep (cf. Lev. 12:6). And among sheep there were three types: rams, ewes, and lambs. Why was Jesus identified as the “Lamb of God”? “It is the lamb,” answered Origen to this question, “that we find offered in the perpetual sacrifices [cf. Ex 29:38].” In addition, it points back to the blood of the unblemished Passover lambs that liberated the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt (Ex. 12).
The Cross is at the heart of the New Exodus, an act of humility, sacrifice, and love liberating man from the power of sin and death. Those who do not recognize Jesus as the Son of God look upon the Cross and see failure and shame. But those who know that Jesus is the Lamb of God see love and grace, what Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger describes as the moment “when God transforms this external violence against him into an act of self-donation to mankind.”
Those who see the Savior on the Cross and become united to him through baptism are, in the words of the Apostle Paul, those “who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy…” They are called, by grace, to be sons and daughters of God.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the January 16, 2011 edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)