John the Baptist’s mysterious declaration

Father Timothy Hepner

By Father Timothy Hepner

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time/Jan. 19

Isaiah 49:3,5-6; Psalm 40:2,4,7-8,8-9,10; 1 Corinthians 1:1-3; John 1:29-34

Do you know what an earworm is? It’s a catchy song that “worms” its way into your ear and seems to lodge itself in your brain, playing over and over again. “Don’t Stop Believing.” “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “Call Me Maybe.” See? You’re already singing them in your head. It seems the Church herself has an earworm. It started as a spontaneous exclamation by John the Baptist, which got stuck in the head of the first apostles, and has gone on to be repeated in every Mass: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!”

It is both beautiful and befuddling. Why wouldn’t John say “Behold, the Son of God!”? Why was it so important for John’s disciples to know that Jesus is the lamb? And why is it so important for the priest to say these same words right before the most important moment of Mass — the reception of Communion? Yet there the phrase is in black and white in John’s Gospel. Later on, in the upper room, Jesus would hold up bread at the same moment the lambs were being slaughtered for Passover and say, “This is my body.” And in 1879 when Mary appeared in Knock, Ireland, Jesus appeared too, not as a man, but as a lamb standing on an altar.

To understand John’s mysterious declaration, we have to go Isaiah: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter” (Isaiah 53:6-7). This was a strange way of describing a messiah and savior, and it would have evoked the Passover lamb that was slain and eaten every year at the highest Jewish feast. To depict the powerful chosen one of God as a helpless victim would have stuck in the hearts and minds — and, yes, ears — of the Jewish people, especially John, who wondered for a long time how this odd prophecy would be fulfilled. Until. . . .

Until John saw that Jesus, though innocent, was willing to receive the baptism which signified death as a result of sin. And this was confirmed when the Father spoke his words of Jesus, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” John knew at this moment that Jesus was not just a righteous man, but one who could take away the sins of the entire world. Jesus, powerful, meek, and humble, was the answer to sin and death.

OUR SIN, GOD’S MERCY

I have heard a lot of confessions in over seven years as a priest, and I know one thing. Every one of us deeply desires to be absolved of guilt, and we are acutely aware of the fact that only one more powerful than us can do this. I also know that the devil wants us to focus on the evil “out there” in the world to distract us from the difficult work of repentance and conversion. News networks rouse our anger and fear 24/7 to keep us watching, and friends on social media love to share what’s wrong in the world.

But unless The Catholic Post’s readership has greatly expanded as much as I wish it would, no one reading this is a world leader. None of us can do much to eradicate evil. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try to do what we can in our own little corners of the world, or that we should just give up. But the striking image of this Sunday’s Gospel tells us that it’s time we let John’s “earworm” wiggle down from our brain to our hearts and acknowledge the twin truths of our own sinfulness and God’s all-powerful mercy.

Next time we are at Mass, let’s ask the Holy Spirit to rekindle John’s fascination with Jesus, the Lamb of God, and to give us a new and profound love for him. Let’s mean it when we say, “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed!”

FATHER TIMOTHY Hepner is vocation director of recruitment for the Diocese of Peoria. To learn more about vocations, visit comeandfollowme.org or the Office of Priestly Formation at followmepeoria on Facebook.

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