When we say the words of the Agnus Dei, or Lamb of God, during Mass, we are directly quoting John the Baptist.
The scene is set on the banks of the Jordan River. John has been gathering disciples by powerfully calling for repentance in light of the coming kingdom of God. One day, as he sees Jesus, he cries out, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!”
John was a great leader, but he recognized that he was not the center of the movement he had begun. He was the forerunner; the voice in the desert. John understood that his role was humbly to prepare others to follow Christ—to be a witness to the glory of God, the one who shows the way. It was not and never would be to draw attention to himself.
By calling Jesus the “Lamb of God,” John sums up his entire mission: he is to prepare the way for the One who will come, to actually take away our sins, not just call us to repentance. John recognizes Jesus as the Savior and exhorts us to do the same.
John’s words about Jesus would have had a powerful impact on those who heard them because they would have called to mind the sacrifices of the Old Testament, particularly the Sacrifice of Passover. In the Passover, the blood of a lamb protected the faithful Israelites from the Angel of Death. Now John the Baptist calls Jesus the lamb of the New Passover, the one who will spare all of hu-manity from eternal separation from God. Jesus is the perfect, true sacrifice that all the old sacrifices had been pointing toward. He is truly the Lamb of God.
First Reading Reflection
This introduction to the season of Ordinary Time from the Prophet Isaiah makes for a wonderful transition from the Advent season. The prophet who foretold the coming of Emmanuel has a word for us concerning the significance and aim of God’s dwelling among us.
In this passage, God renews through Isaiah the promise of his universal salvific will. Throughout the history of God’s people— whether that term is intended to refer to the kingdom of Israel or the new Israel, which is the Church—there's been a tendency to forget that God gives us what he gives us not merely to favor us, but to make us instruments in his universal plan. God created all and he intends to save all.
It’s just as easy for us to think that God’s will stops at the church door as it was for the Israelites to think that his dom-inion was exercised solely within the boundaries of geographical Israel. But that wasn’t the faith of Israel nor is it our faith. From the time of Adam, the time of Noah, and even from the time of Abraham when God began the process of forming a particular people to be “a light to the nations,” he has always had his eye on “the nations.”
Second Reading Reflection
Again, as was the case in the second reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we have an opening greeting, a salutation from one of St. Paul’s epistles or letters. That seems somehow appropriate to the begin-ing of Ordinary Time. And Paul’s reminder of what he is, “an apostle of Jesus Christ,” is a fit reminder of what we’re called to be.
The word "apostle" in Greek means “one sent forth.” The Greek term is used in John 17:3, where Jesus declares his mission from the Father. And the same term is used through-out the New Testament in reference to those sent by the ancient churches to spread the Gospel. Paul describes the Corinthians to whom he writes as those “who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be a holy.” As we begin that part of the liturgical cycle that we call ordinary time, we do well to remember that part of our vocation as God’s holy people is to be sent to all those who, wherever they may be, fall within the ambit of God’s loving, saving will. That, of course, includes the whole of the human family.
Gospel Reading Reflection
In this passage, we’re told that John identified Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Commentators suggest that this might be an allusion to the Passover lamb consumed by the Jews as a commemoration of the Exodus event, to the prophetic witness in regard to the “suffering servant of Yahweh,” to the symbolic representation of a horned lamb that’s made for some of the heroes of Israel, or to the twice daily sacrifice of a lamb in the temple of Jerusalem. John the Baptist unites all of these symbolically when he recognizes Jesus as the “Lamb of God.” The Jews considered the offering of Isaac by Abraham to be a pivotal event in salvation history. Rather than requiring the sacrifice of Isaac, God sent an angel to Abraham to point out a ram (an adult male sheep caught by his horns in a thicket to offer instead.
This would be consistent with the Christian notion, prominent in the Liturgy of the Triduum, that Isaac is a symbolic foreshadowing of Jesus who is the beloved Son of God, just as Isaac was the beloved son of Abraham. At the end of our passage from John’s Gospel, John the Baptist, after calling Jesus the Lamb of God, also identifies him as “the Son of God.”
Reflect & Discuss
We are now in Ordinary Time, those Sundays of the year when we aren’t preparing for or celebrating some major feast. Please watch the short Opening the Word video. Edward Sri gives us some insight into a phrase we hear every time we attend Mass. Then reflect and discuss these questions with a friend:
What would the phrase “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” have meant to John the Baptist’s Jewish followers, according to Dr. Sri?
What role does John the Baptist play with regard to Jesus and our salvation?
Baptism and the “Door Of Faith”
Agnus Dei, which means “Lamb of God,” is said during the Mass when the Host is broken. It comes from a Syrian custom and was first used in the Roman Rite Mass by Pope Sergius I (687–701).
The Latin text is:
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis. Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis. Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.
Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.
Reprinted with permission from Augustine Institute from the Opening the Word Leader Guide available on FORMED.org