Is 49:3, 5-6
Ps 40:2, 4, 7-8, 8-9, 10
1 Cor 1:1-3
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.
"Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the January 16, 2011
edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)