Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
January 19, 2014
Is 49:3.5-6, Ps 40, 1Cor 1:1-3, Jn 1:29-34
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click here:
This was the text that guided the homily:
Jesus as Lamb
Today we revisit the scene of Jesus’ baptism. Last week we heard St. Matthew’s version, which focuses mainly on the facts of what happened. Today we hear St. John the Evangelist’s account, which concentrates more on the perspective of St. John the Baptist. And we see something surprising if not shocking. The Baptist says that that the whole reason for his mission, the point of his life, the purpose for which he was baptizing with water at the Jordan, was so that he would be able to point out the one who was coming after him who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. And when that long-awaited person came, the Baptist didn’t cry out, “Behold the Lord!,” “Behold the Messiah!,” “Look! The Son of God!,” “Here is the Savior, the King of Jews and King of Kings, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Light of the World, the Resurrection and the Life,” — or any of the other fitting titles that would have filled his listeners with awe at the incredible majesty of the One whose sandal strap John was saying he wasn’t worthy to untie. Instead he used an expression that was not majestic at all: “Behold the Lamb of God!”
We have grown so accustomed to the phrase “Lamb of God” — which we use in the Gloria, sing or say three times in the prayer called the Lamb of God , and hear the priest say when, echoing the very words of John the Baptist, he holds Jesus in his elevated hands as tells us to behold him — that many of us no longer sense what the Jews would have felt when the Baptist referred to Jesus in this way. Imagine, however, that right now someone was walking down the central aisle of our Church today and I said, “Look! There is the pigeon of heaven! Or behold the squirrel of the Almighty! Or welcome the chihuahua of God!” Your reaction would be something similar to the first reaction of the Jews to Jesus when they heard the term lamb. Lambs aren’t high on our list of beloved and admired animals. They’re not noted for their strength, or looks. They’re not impressive like elephants or tigers, stallions, bulls or eagles.
Jesus, however, identified with the humble attributes of the lamb. He identified with the lamb sacrificed by Abel that was pleasing to God; with the lamb that God provided for Abraham’s sacrifice so that Isaac wouldn’t die; with lambs whose blood was placed on the lintels of the Jews during the Passover; with the lambs that were offered each day to God in the Temple in atonement for sins. Jesus assimilated in himself the identity and sacrificial purpose of the Lamb in Jewish mentality to become precisely the acceptable sacrifice offered to the Lord to take away the sins not just of the Jews but of the whole world. Beholding Jesus as the Lamb of God, the Jews were invited to see something far greater at work than just a carpenter from Nazareth, but the fulfillment of all the sacrifices of the Old Covenant, the realization of the much-prophesied work of the long-awaited Messiah. They were challenged to see in him something far greater than met the eye. And through the Baptist’s words and work, God was calling all of them to relate to Jesus under this title, to allow him to take away their sins and, later, to eat him, just like the Jews needed to eat the Passover lamb to be freed from Pharaoh and become capable of the journey to the Promised Lamb.
Becoming Protectors of the Vulnerable
Jesus, however, didn’t stop the imagery and identification of himself as the Lamb with John the Baptist’s expression. He would later call himself the “Good Shepherd,” tell us we were the sheep of his flock, and before his Ascension would entrust to St. Peter and to all of us in the Church the care of that flock. At the Sea of Galilee after the Resurrection, he asked St. Peter three times, in response to his three fold denial on Good Friday, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” And when Peter replied that he did, Jesus commissioned him, “Feed my lambs. … Tend my sheep. … Feed my sheep.” If we, like Peter, love the Lord, then it will show by how we feed and protect others, both the grown up sheep and the small, young, vulnerable lambs. Jesus identifies the love we have for him with the love we give to his sheep and lambs.
We began yesterday, on January 18, a new initiative of the US Bishops’ Pro-Life Apostolate led by Cardinal O’Malley. It’s entitled Nine Days for Life. It’s meant to be novena of prayer enveloping the day of penance, prayer, and fasting that all Catholics are called to live on January 22, which is the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that, with its companion case Doe v. Bolton, made the abortion of Christ’s smallest lambs legal in our country. The Jewish historian Josephus said that during the heyday of the Temple in Jerusalem, up to 256,000 lambs were killed in one year. Just imagine the amount of blood that would have rained down like a river in the temple from the massacre of so many animals. Then multiply that number by 5 and 6 , to 1.2 to 1.5 million, and that’s the number of human beings that have been slaughtered legally every year in our country since Roe. And yet the killing goes on.
The “frightful” evil of throwing human beings away through abortion
A few days ago, Pope Francis welcomed the U.S. Ambassador and all of the diplomats accredited to the Holy See for his annual “state of the world” address. He returned to a theme I mentioned to you back on Respect Life Sunday at the beginning of October, that we are living in a “throwaway culture” where not only food and disposable objects are thrown away, but often “human beings themselves, who are discarded as unnecessary.” Pope Francis said it was “frightful even to think that there are children, victims of abortion, who will never see the light of day.” He chose the term carefully. Abortion is “frightful.” It’s something that should fill us all with fear and horror. He stressed, much as Mother Teresa did at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1993 before President and Hillary Clinton, that society would never have peace as long as we continue to sanction these “frightful” abuses against human dignity, giving those who are stronger, older and bigger the right to kill those human beings who are physically or socially weaker. Back in September, in an address to Catholic doctors, Pope Francis stressed that the “first right of a human person is his life. He has other goods and some of them are more precious; but life is the fundamental good, condition for all the others.” If we don’t affirm as human beings we have a right not to be killed by other human beings who don’t want or value us, then all other right claims are made on quicksand. For that reason, to build a culture of peace in a throw-away culture, Pope Francis says that we must give “a decisive and unhesitant ‘yes’ to life.”
Recognizing Christ in every unborn child and spreading the Gospel of Life
For Catholics, he stressed in September, the first step of that decisive and unhesitating yes to life comes from the way we behold the Lamb of God, behold Jesus, in each of the endangered lambs made in his image and likeness. “Each one of us,” Pope Francis stressed, “is called to recognize in the fragile human being the face of the Lord…. Every unborn child, condemned unjustly to being aborted, has the face of the Lord.… They cannot be discarded!”
The second step is to defend and protect these little lambs. Pope Francis reminded us that it is a “mandate” of the Lord to be “witnesses and propagators of [the] ‘culture of life.’” Listen to Pope Francis: “Your being Catholic entails a greater responsibility: first of all to yourselves, through a commitment consistent with your Christian vocation; and then to contemporary culture, by contributing to recognizing the transcendent dimension of human life, the imprint of God’s creative work, from the first moment of its conception. This is a task of the new evangelization that often requires going against the tide and paying for it personally. The Lord is also counting on you to spread the ‘gospel of life.’”
In today’s first reading, Isaiah tells us quite clearly that the Lord “formed me as his servant from the womb.” The prophet Jeremiah tells us that God called him from the womb and consecrated him as a prophet to the nations. We know that Jesus while he was in the womb as a tiny little embryo sanctified the fetal John the Baptist in St. Elizabeth’s womb, made him leap for joy, and consecrated him to his great mission to prepare his way. These point out that we are already in relation to God while we are in the womb. We are in God’s image and likeness. He already has a mission for us in the building up of his kingdom. And we’re called to see in every child in the womb the face of the Lord, we’re called to behold the Lamb in every baby boy and female fetus and early embryo and care for that child the way we would care for Jesus himself. Jesus told us quite clearly that whoever receives a little child in his name receives him. To say it another way, paraphrasing Dorothy Day who once had an abortion herself, we love the Lord Jesus to the extent that we love the child in the womb, the way we protect him, defend her rights, care for him, and her mother and family.
Responding to that calling
The question for us is whether we ignore or respond to this call. There are many ways to act on it — we heard one of the most important ways before Mass in Nadine DeMello’s testimony of the life-saving work of A Woman’s Concern Pregnancy Resource Center, which I heartily encourage you to support with your financial resources, with your prayers and with your volunteer hours — but for us as Catholics, if we’re going to be faithful, it’s not optional for us to be pro-life. To be a good Catholic, we must behold the Lamb of God in the faces of those in the womb and stick up for them the way we would stick up for Jesus himself. Just as it would be impossible for someone to be a good Catholic and support child abuse, or look the other way when women are being sold into prostitution, or when people are being exploited because of their race, or when innocent people are being tortured, so it is impossible for someone to be a faithful Catholic and support the premeditated murder of other human beings through abortion, regardless of whether the President says it’s okay, or the Congress, or the Supreme Court, or the majority of Hollywood celebrities or talk show hosts or newspaper editorial pages say it’s fine. Pope Francis has told us — quite clearly — that “each of us” has received a mandate of the Lord to spread the Gospel of Life and to defend the dignity of unborn children bearing Christ’s face, even if we have to suffer for it.
Earlier this week, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia — about whom you may remember I wrote my own Hero of Faith reflection back in November during our Year of Faith series — wrote an article on his archdiocesan website that in his characteristic way clarified for us whether we’re acting on Jesus’ mandate or ignoring it with regard to what he called the “killing spree” that Roe v. Wade has unleashed, leading to the death of more than 55 million unborn children. As Catholics, called to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world and the leaven of society, we have a duty to try to transform our culture from a culture of waste and death to one of life. But it’s not enough for us to try to change the culture to one in which pregnant women choose life over death. We also have the duty to do all we can to change law to respect the dignity of every person.
Our duty to work to transform both culture and law
“When we claim to be ‘Catholic’ but then don’t advance our beliefs about the sanctity of the human person as the basis of law,” Archbishop Chaput wrote, “it means one of two things. We’re either very confused, or we’re very evasive.” Against those who have tried to get Christians voluntarily to withdraw our values from public policy, to keep us privately opposed to abortion but publicly tolerant lest we “force” our values on them, the Archbishop reminded us that “all law involves the imposition of somebody’s beliefs about the nature of truth, charity and justice on everyone else. That’s the reason we have marches, debates, elections and Congress – to peacefully turn the struggle of ideas and moral convictions into laws that guide our common life.”
Because we know that stealing is wrong, we outlaw robbery and embezzlement, forcing our vision of the good on those who think they’re entitled to what others own. Because we know that endanger the lives of others is wrong, we outlaw drunk driving and force our morality on those who want to get behind the wheel smashed. Because we know that murder is wrong, every state has passed a law to punish those who think and do otherwise. With abortion, there are those who believe that they’re entitled to end the life of other human beings whose lives are unwanted or inconvenient, and as Catholics who are not confused or evasive, we need to work patiently and boldly to change our laws to prevent their doing this unspeakable evil against others and we need to elect leaders who recognize that the premeditated killing of innocent children should be stopped.
The history of the Church, Archbishop Chaput recalled, has been a history of political revolution. It’s not that we, as believers, have primarily political goals — after all, Jesus didn’t come to fulfill the political aspirations of those who were looking for an earthly kingdom and a Messiah who would conquer the Romans — but that because of our living out our faith, we have always lifted society up.
“We need to remember that in the early Church,” Archbishop Chaput said, “the words ‘Jesus is Lord’ were – unintentionally but profoundly – a political statement. The emperor claimed to be Lord both in the private and public lives of the citizens of the empire. When Christians proclaimed Jesus as Lord, they were proclaiming the centrality of Jesus not only in their personal lives but in their public lives and decision-making. That took courage. And it had huge consequences for their lives. Jesus was hung upon the cross because of his claim of Lordship. Christianity was illegal for the first 250 years of the Church’s life because Christians proclaimed, ‘Jesus is Lord.’”
He then made some clear applications. “The President of our country deserves our respect, but he is not ‘Lord.’ Our political parties, whether Democratic or Republican, are not ‘Lord.’ Congress is not ‘Lord.’ The Supreme Court that gave us Roe and sacralized the right to kill unborn children is not ‘Lord.’ None of these people or things is Lord. Only God is God, and only Jesus Christ is Lord. And Christ’s relationship with each of us as individuals, and all of us as the believing Catholic community, should be the driving force of our personal lives and for all of our public witness, including our political witness on matters of human dignity. ‘God’ need not be on our lips every minute of every day. But he should be in our hearts from the moment we wake, to the moment we sleep. Only Jesus is Lord. The Church belongs to him; not to us, but to him. And we should never allow ourselves to be pushed from the public square by those who want someone else, or something else, to be Lord.”
Those who worship the god of personal autonomy to the point of believing they have a right to kill Christ’s innocent lambs are trying to push us from the public square because we don’t acknowledge that Lord. You may have heard what New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a speech on Friday. He said that those who support the “right-to-life… have no place in the state of New York, because that’s not who New Yorkers are.” Pro-lifers, he said, ought to have no place not only in the public square but in the entire state. Cardinal Dolan doesn’t belong. The Sisters of Life, for whom I’ve preached retreats and given courses, have no place. The millions of those households that support the dignity of every human life are no longer welcome. Governor Cuomo is a baptized Catholic, but he’s worshipping a false god, and trying to create the conditions so that New Yorkers can’t worship the true God. The response of New Yorkers, known for the grit, ought to be that if he thinks those who support the right to life have no place in New York, then they’ll make sure he has no office in Albany. That should be the attitude of Catholics to all of those in public office who use their positions not to defend and protect the vulnerable and innocent but to promote policies that only increase the killing spree unleashed by Roe v. Wade.
The virtues needed
What’s needed of us at a practical level? Archbishop Chaput finishes his article by talking about the virtues we need. He said, “There’s a very old Christian expression that goes like this: ‘Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.’” He asked, “Are we troubled enough about what’s wrong with the world — the killing of millions of unborn children through abortion; the neglect of the poor, the disabled and the elderly; the mistreatment of immigrants in our midst — [to do something about it]? Do we really have the courage of our convictions to change those things?”
He added, “The opposite of hope is cynicism, and cynicism also has two daughters. Their names are indifference and cowardice,” those who say falsely that they can’t make a difference and because they don’t even want to try, faintheartedly stay on the sidelines. Archbishop Chaput is trying to help us as Catholics be people of hope, righteous indignation and bravery. “In renewing ourselves in our faith,” he said, “what Catholics need to change most urgently is the lack of courage we find in our own personal lives, in our national political life, and sometimes even within the Church herself. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn once wrote, ‘The line separating good and evil runs not through states, nor between classes, nor even between political parties, but right through the center of each human heart, and every human heart.’ That includes you and me.”
And so during these Nine Days for Life and beyond, the Lord wants to give us the hope, strength, valor and love that come from the Gospel, that flow from a life of union with him, so that we can go out and love others, especially those whose lives are endangered, with the love with which he has first loved us. He wants us to recognize, today, the mandate he has given to us to tend and feed his lambs and sheep and to grasp that whenever he calls us to a mission, he will provide all the spiritual grace he knows we’re going to need to fulfill that mission. Just like he, the Good Shepherd, left the 99 behind to go out to save the life of a lost sheep whose life would could be at risk from wolves and other dangers, so we are called to leave our insulated comfort zones behind to go forth to try to save, tend and feed the vulnerable. This week is one of the most important in the year to show our culture, our country, our politicians and indeed the world what we really believe about the sanctity of life, in the way we pray, fast, do penance, sacrifice financially, hold our public servants accountable, and witness publicly.
Beholding Jesus in Communion to Beholding Him in Utero
Behold the Lamb of God! Just like a lamb isn’t a particularly impressive animal, so a little child growing in the womb might not stick out all that much. But we know that just as the carpenter at the Jordan was far more than met the eye, so we know that every child growing in the womb is someone special, someone loved by the Lord, someone called by the Lord, someone that the Lord has entrusted to our love and care. Let us ask the Lord Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, to take away from our midst the sin of abortion and the culture of waste that leads to it, to forgive us our own sins of omission and commission with regard to tending and feeding his lambs and sheep, to strengthen us with holy anger and courage to work to transform not only our culture but our laws, and to help us, who behold him under the appearances of bread and wine here at Mass to learn to behold his face in every unborn little brother and sister! As we prepare to receive him now with love, let us ask him to give every pregnant woman — and all of us — the grace to love, welcome, want, nourish and protect him in the womb just like Mary loved him as the blessed fruit of her womb.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
IS 49:3, 5-6
Israel, through whom I show my glory.
Now the LORD has spoken
who formed me as his servant from the womb,
that Jacob may be brought back to him
and Israel gathered to him;
and I am made glorious in the sight of the LORD,
and my God is now my strength!
It is too little, the LORD says, for you to be my servant,
to raise up the tribes of Jacob,
and restore the survivors of Israel;
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
PS 40:2, 4, 7-8, 8-9, 10
I have waited, waited for the LORD,
and he stooped toward me and heard my cry.
And he put a new song into my mouth,
a hymn to our God.
R/ Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.
Sacrifice or offering you wished not,
but ears open to obedience you gave me.
Holocausts or sin-offerings you sought not;
then said I, “Behold I come.”
R/ Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will.
“In the written scroll it is prescribed for me,
to do your will, O my God, is my delight,
and your law is within my heart!”
R/ Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.
I announced your justice in the vast assembly;
I did not restrain my lips, as you, O LORD, know.
R/ Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.
1 COR 1:1-3
and Sosthenes our brother,
to the church of God that is in Corinth,
to you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy,
with all those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
their Lord and ours.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ.
John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said,
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
He is the one of whom I said,
‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me
because he existed before me.’
I did not know him,
but the reason why I came baptizing with water
was that he might be made known to Israel.”
John testified further, saying,
“I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven
and remain upon him.
I did not know him,
but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me,
‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain,
he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’
Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.”