Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
January 16, 2005
Is 49:3,5-6; 1Cor 1:1-3; Jn 1:29-34
1) There’s a truly remarkable phrase in today’s Gospel, that occurs not once but twice. Sometimes we can become so habituated to the episodes in Christ’s life that we miss these important details, details which indicate to us God’s method of action and chart for us the path of our own. John the Baptist twice confesses publicly, “I myself did not know him.” Even though he had been consecrated and sanctified by Christ in utero during the Visitation about three decades earlier, the adult John the Baptist had no idea what his cousin would look like. Jesus probably would have looked like any of the thousands of Jews descending to the Jordan to listen to and be baptized by John. There would have been nothing extraordinary in his appearance.
2) How was he to tell who Jesus was? John describes that the “one who sent me to baptize with water — here we can read, I think, God the Father — said to me ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” As John was preaching and baptizing, he would have been constantly looking for this sign. Then one day, as Jesus came to the Jordan, that sign was fulfilled. John says, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.” That’s we he shouted out, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”
3) So there was a two-fold process to Jesus’ adult epiphany. First, God the Father and God the Holy Spirit pointed Jesus out to John. Then John pointed Jesus out to everybody else.
4) John the Baptist’s mission, therefore, was not just to call the people of God to repentance. It was not just to make straight the paths of the Lord and prepare the Jews for the advent of the Messiah. It was also to POINT OUT the Messiah when at last he came. Just like the angels needed to indicate the baby Jesus to the shepherds and the wise men needed the star, so the adult Jesus also needed an indicator to point out that he who looked fully human was also in fact divine. John was that star. John was that angel. He concluded his account by saying, “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the SON OF GOD.”
5) Across the path of two thousand years, the need for people to have Jesus pointed out to them has only grown. It’s grown precisely because the Son of God has taken on even more humble disguises than he did in Palestine. Because Jesus is so masked, many people ordinarily MISS his presence. The Church continues to fulfill the mission of John the Baptist in our own day by pointing Christ out. Because we are now in the midst of the Year of the Eucharist, I would like to focus, in particular, on the FOUR PLACES the Church — in the Second Vatican Council’s document on the liturgy — says that Jesus is present IN THE MASS. Before I mention what those four ways are, I’d like to pause just to give you the time to ask yourselves where these four places would be. If I, or one of the catechumens present today, asked you what they were, how many would you be able to name? The reason why I ask this question is because, if you don’t recognize all four already, you really will need to listen to the modern John the Baptist as the Church describes for you where Christ is to be found among the “ordinary” events of the Mass you attend every week.
6) Here’s what the second Vatican Council teaches: “To accomplish so great a work [of salvation], Christ is always present in his Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass not only in the person of his minister, ‘the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross,’ but especially in the eucharistic species. … He is present in his word since it is he himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church. Lastly, he is present when the Church prays and sings, for he has promised ‘where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I in the midst of them’ (Mt. 18:20)” (Sancrosanctum Concilium, 7).
7) So there are four places where we behold the Lamb of God in disguise: in the person of the priest, in the Eucharist, in the Holy Scriptures, and in the praying faithful. We can focus on each of the four:
a. In the person of the priest — On the day of a priest’s ordination, he lies on the floor and dies to himself. In the older rites of the ordination of priests, they used to lay a funeral pall on top of him to symbolize his death and, upon rising, he would receive a new name. The Church teaches that the priest is “ontologically changed” by ordination — he is changed in the essence of his being — configuring him to Christ in such a way that he acts IN THE PERSON OF CHRIST. Regardless of a priest’s personal sanctity or virtue, Christ acts in him whenever he celebrates the sacraments with the proper intention. It is Christ who says, “This is my body,” “this is the cup of my blood.” It is Christ who says, “I absolve you from your sins.” It is Christ who says, “I baptize you.”
b. In the Eucharist — This, at one level, I hope, should be obvious. The Church uses the Baptist’s very words to prepare us to receive the Lord each Mass: “Behold the Lamb of God.” But on another level it clearly isn’t obvious. John asked his people to believe that what looked like an ordinary Jewish man was really the Son of God. The Church asks us to believe that what looks like ORDINARY BREAD AND WINE disguises that same Son of God. None of us could possibly come to that conclusion without being told about it. The Church points Jesus’ presence out because Jesus himself pointed out his presence. In the Synagogue of Capernaum, he announced that we would have to eat his flesh and drink his blood and that his flesh is real food and blood real drink (Jn 6:53-55). One year later, he explained what he was describing, when he took bread and said, “This is body” and wine and said, “This is the cup of my blood.”
c. In the holy scriptures — When the word of God is read, the Council teaches, it is really God who speaks. This is not just because we believe that each of the books of the Bible were inspired by God the Holy Spirit, who assisted their human authors. We believe that when they are read in Church, the Word is “living and active” (Heb 4:12). The word is ALIVE and in the proclamation of the word, GOD SPEAKS TO US LIVE. When we read the beatitudes, for example, we’re not hearing only what Jesus said on the mountain 2000 years ago, but what HE IS SAYING TO YOU AND ME RIGHT NOW IN THE PRESENT. He teaches us, in real time, like he taught the disciples on the road to Emmaus, making his disciples’ hearts burn as he “interprets… the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Lk 24:27).
d. “When the Church prays and sings” — We’ve always believe that Christ is present in each of the members of his Mystical Body when they are in the state of grace. The vine is present in each of us living branches (Jn 15). Each of us needs to recognize that the person sitting next to us in the pew, or behind us, or in front of us, bears the image of God and is united to Christ if he or she is in the state of grace. The way we treat that person is the way we treat Christ. Jesus himself said that twice, when he stated, “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me” (Mt 25:40). And when Saul was persecuting the Church, Christ stopped him and said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute ME?” (Acts 9:4). But as true as this is, this is not the presence of Christ that the fathers of the Second Vatican Council are calling us to notice, but is based on it. The Council is not describing Christ’s presence in every INDIVIDUAL CELL of his mystical body, but in the WHOLE BODY, praying and singing together. When Christ’s body prays and sings hymns of praise to the Father, it is Christ who prays and sings in them. THIS is the fourth presence the Council describes.
8 ) The Church continues to point out Christ in each of these ways. But just as the Baptist had the mission to point Christ out to others that the Father and the Holy Spirit pointed out to him, so EACH OF US has the mission to indicate to others the presence of Christ in each of these ways the Church has designated to us. And in order for us to fulfill that mission well, we also need to understand the “counter-signs” against Christ’s presence in our own behavior sometimes that can make it more difficult for others to recognize Christ. Each us us has the mission:
a. To point out Jesus in the priest — We have to admit that it’s often hard to recognize Christ in the priest. We priests don’t always behave in a way that immediately evokes Christ. I’m not talking here just about the scandalous behavior of some priests who, rather than trying to sanctify Christ’s flock, abused it. I’m talking about the rest of us, who too often live not as icons of Christ but live as everyone else does, in too worldly a way. Rather than being transparent images of the High Priest, we can be opaque and hinder people from seeing the Lord. But that’s the way it’s been from the beginning. Jesus didn’t choose perfect people to be his priests, but reconciled sinners who, as we see in the lives of the apostles, do not always live up to their dignity. That’s why we need to ask the Lord for the gift of greater faith to able to see Christ in his priests. Regardless of their personal sanctity and virtue, as I said above, Christ still acts in and through them. And we need to reverence Christ in the priest. What I’m not saying is to put the priest on a pedestal, which happened in the past, and led to problems. What I am saying is to behave in such a way that, despite a priest’s defects, we never lose sight of Christ’s presence acting through the priest. Sometimes people can easily jump on the bandwagon of criticizing a priest for almost anything they don’t care for. “He preaches too long.” “He preaches too short.” “He’s too shy.” “He’s too concerned about the old people.” “He’s too concerned about the young people.” “He doesn’t do much.” “He does too much.” I ask myself, sometimes, would we have said the same things to Christ? “Sorry, Jesus, your sermon on the mount was just too long.” “Stop talking in parables — just get to the point.” “Stop going from place to place, I can never find you.” Criticism against priests can do harm to others, even when the criticism is true. The more we focus on the priest’s defects or the parts of his humanity we care for least, the harder, of course, it will be to focus on Christ working in and through his priests. The corollary, I think, is also true. The more we focus on Christ in the priest, by the way we talk, by the way we behave, the easier it will be for others —young people, catechumens, non-Catholics, etc. — to discover Christ in them. I also think that the more we directly treat the priest as a Christ-bearer and reverence Christ in the priest, the more Christ-like priests we will form.
b. To point out Jesus in the Eucharist — I have always loved watching young parents showing their kids how to behave in Church, pointing out “Jesus’ house” (the tabernacle) to them, showing them how to genuflect, teaching them how to bow in reverence before Holy Communion, how to make a true throne with our hands to receive the King of Kings if we receive on the hands. When I was young, I learned so much from the simple of gesture of my mother’s teaching us to make the sign of the Cross every time we passed a Church, “because Jesus was inside the Church in the Eucharist.” It’s in these little ways that we point Jesus out to others. When our colleagues, or fellow students, or family members discover that we make a visit to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, that conveys an important message, because we don’t make that effort to worship a piece of bread or a symbol. Such sacrifices, of course, would be fitting to the Lord of the universe. But there are counter-signs to his presence, which can scandalize others and make it much harder for them to see him in the Eucharist. One is when we don’t go to Mass every week, which is a contradiction to young kids. If we really believed that the Eucharist is God, how could we ever behave in such a way that we say by our actions that something is more important than receiving God within? Another counter-sign occurs when people receive Holy Communion and head straight out the door. Priests call this the “Judas shuffle,” because the Gospel tells us that, as soon as he received Christ’s body and blood that first Mass, he went “out into the night” to betray Christ. If we really believed that we had received God inside, why would be in such a rush? Were the Magi and the Shepherds in a hurry, do you think, to leave the manger? My point is that our body language is the best sign of what we really believe, and the Lord is asking us by that body language to do all that we can to announce his presence in the Eucharist.
c. To point out Jesus in Sacred Scripture — If Jesus does speak to us live in the Gospel, then our behavior needs to show that. This starts with our rapt attention to the proclamation of Sacred Scripture. I wish that I could take each of you one-by-one and have you stand here next to me sometime as I proclaim the Gospel. I think you might be shocked at what you see. Rather than seeing a people hanging on every word of Jesus, I often see people looking distractedly about, looking at their watch — maybe even thinking it was broken! —, flipping pages in the missalette, or even reading the bulletin or talking with someone in the pew. We stand for the Gospel precisely because it is Jesus who is speaking. But we first need to recognize his presence and proclaim it to others by how we comport ourselves. I’d like to be very practical here: Unless you’re hard of hearing, or you’re an immigrant and your comprehension of spoken English still needs work, please put down the missalette during the proclamation of the Gospel and listen directly to Jesus speaking to you. The people who heard Jesus preaching in the synagogues didn’t have written texts and didn’t need them. Similarly, unless we’re hard of hearing or linguistically challenged, we don’t “subtitles” for the Gospel either. You’ll capture more if you LISTEN — and you can always re-read the text later. I’d like to make one other application, especially for families. If Jesus really speaks to us in the Gospel — and he does! — then we need to try to open up the Gospel at home to let his voice echo and sanctify those who live in that home. That is what will help make the family a “domestic Church” — which is what Christian family is called to be.
d. To point out Jesus praying and singing in his Church — This may be the most challenging of all, even though in some ways it should be easy. We need to come to Mass with the intention to be united with others in prayer and singing. Many people seem to come more as spectators rather than participants. It’s discouraging how many people never even open the hymnal to pray the hymns with their brothers and sisters. When I process to the altar each week, I’d say about HALF — and I’m not exaggerating! — of the people were not participating, as the rest of us praise the Lord in song. I wonder what these people would do if Jesus himself came up to them and told them to open up their hymnals to number 131 so that we could all sign to his mom, “Immaculate Mary.” Would some of us say, “No, Jesus, I don’t like that hymn… You sing it!”? Or would we say, “Jesus, you gave me a real stinker for a voice, and therefore I’d just as well not use it!”? None of us would say that to the Lord directly, but many of us say that to him indirectly each week. I really think that someone who doesn’t want to enter into communion with Christ’s body in praying the whole Mass should not come to receive him in holy communion, because one really isn’t fully in communion. I know that’s a provocative statement and it’s meant to be. The refusal to pray parts of the Mass is not a light matter, because it’s a refusal to allow the Lord to pray in us and to bring us into prayerful communion with others. And it causes scandal. I think it’s one of the principal causes for one of the worst and most common blasphemies of our age: the blasphemy that “Mass is boring,” heard by so many young people as the reason why they don’t want to come to Mass. They say that — as they’ve told me on many retreats and during my time as a high school chaplain — because so many adults they witness behave as if they’re “bored out of their minds” and are at Mass only because they think they have to be. We have to be honest: While our Protestant brothers and sisters lack the presence of Christ in the Eucharist and in the priesthood, they recognize and manifest much more than we do Christ’s presence praying and singing in and within them. We need to learn and imitate their zeal and their joy in praising God in prayer and song. To pray and sing is not someone else’s job or mission. It’s the mission of every Christian. God will help us to fulfill it, provided that we don’t refuse him.
9) In summary, John the Baptist’s mission was to point Jesus out to others after the Father and the Holy Spirit had pointed Jesus out to him. In the same way, each of us — having discovered or rediscovered Christ’s presence in these four ways at Mass — is called to go with courage to announce the presence of Jesus to others. As we get ready to receive the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” we ask Him to take whatever sins blind us and others to his presence, so that, having seen him, we may be as faithful to our mission of announcing him to others as the Baptist was.