Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
February 22, 2010
Jesus Christ: Lamb of God and Bread of Life
Bishop Gary Gordon's talk to Nothing More Beautiful
Following is an edited version of the talk given by Bishop Gary Gordon of Whitehorse to the Feb. 4 session of Nothing More Beautiful at St. Joseph's Basilica in Edmonton.
Our theme this evening, Jesus Christ, Lamb of God and Bread of Life, is certainly at the very heart of our Christian lives.
"Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1.29). These are the words of John the Baptist when he caught sight of Jesus coming toward him at the Jordan River where he was baptizing.
In our celebration of the Holy Eucharist every Sunday and every day, these words of John's Gospel find unique significance for us during the breaking of the bread and the Communion Rite when we sing or say, "Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: have mercy on us; Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: grant us peace."
Just before Holy Communion the priest holds before the people the Body of Christ and says, "This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper."
The supper that we are invited to is part two of our title this evening, The Bread of Life. It is the theme presented in a wonderful way in chapter 6 of the Gospel of John containing the discourse on the Bread of Life.
In the Gospel of John this discourse on the Bread of Life is situated just as "the Jewish feast of Passover was near" (John 6.4). In other words, when the whole people of Israel remembered the sacrifice of the lamb and the blood that was painted on the doors, so they could escape slavery and come into freedom.
The presentation of Jesus Christ as Lamb and Bread is associated with food for me and with a little fluffy ball of wool, a little white lamb. And yet that is central to our understanding of Jesus Christ, his mission and the mission of the Church. I want to frame these brief reflections this evening, which indeed many a scholar have written volumes on, the Bread of Life and Lamb of God, in the context of covenant and communion. These two words find their fullest expression for us in Jesus Christ, who is the life, the death and resurrection, who gave himself for us.
First, the lamb image. If you're like me - I don't know how many people here have slaughtered a lamb on an altar - I need to try to comprehend that. It is from our childhood, indeed from my childhood, that any kind of comprehension of Jesus Christ as the Bread of Life has come. It wasn't until I was in the seminary, I guess, that I started to comprehend Jesus as the Lamb of God, sacrificed and given for us.
I want to give you a little story from my youth. It was a pivotal moment when I recognized Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God and Bread of Life. I was 16 years old. I had just finished my first year in the seminary. I started seminary early, in Grade 10, and it took me 10 years to get through.
After my first year in the seminary, finishing Grade 10, I came home for summer holidays in the middle of June. In the seminary we had Mass every day. On my first day home from the seminary, I had the opportunity to sleep in, and I thought, "Oh, this is going to be great."
I had gone to bed thinking, "Oh this is great, I don't have to get up at 6 o'clock like in the seminary to go to Mass at 6:30." Well, I woke up at 7:30, and all of a sudden it dawned on me: "Weekday Mass at my parish, one mile away, is at 8 o'clock. I'll go."
That is a huge decision when you're 16 years old, even if you are in the seminary. I got up and got dressed and I got on my bike. It's about 20 to 8 and I had a mile to go.
I came to a four-way stop and did one of those kitty-corner things. I didn't stop there was nobody around I just rolled through the four-way stop, kind of cutting across the intersection.
All of a sudden there were sirens. Sirens! I was pulled over by an RCMP officer who promptly gave me a ticket. I didn't even have a driver's licence. This RCMP officer was really big, and he said, "You have to be at the courthouse at 4:30 with your father."
"Oh, I don't want to let Dad know. Oh, OK." I got to Mass, ticket in hand, 10 minutes late. But I was rewarded for that decision. First, I didn't have to pay a fine. When I got to the courthouse with my father, I got a nice lecture from the RCMP constable on duty, and of course a longer lecture from my father about the rules of the road.
I share that story because it was a pivotal moment in my life of decision - that there's something there at the Mass that's nowhere else. Since that day, I think I can probably count on one hand the times I've missed Mass on a weekday. It's because truly there is a deep hunger within me for Jesus, for the Bread of Life, the Lamb of God.
Now this lamb question, Jesus Christ as the Lamb. To understand that is to look at Scripture in the Old Testament. The lamb was one of the most frequently sacrificed victims in the Israelite ritual. It is prescribed for the paschal liturgy, for the feast of Weeks and for the feast of Tabernacles. It is also ordered for the Day of Atonement and the daily sacrifices and at many other times.
This sacrificial context, with its special reference to the Passover, is the reason for applying to Jesus the title "Lamb of God." Jesus Christ is given that title in the Gospel of John: "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world." (John 1.29-36).
In the book of Revelation "Lamb" is a frequent title for Christ, not only in his condition of sacrificial victim for the sins of the world but also in his present glorified condition and in his role as judge of the universe. So in the scriptural presentation in the book of Revelation, the Lamb is clearly the Lamb sacrificed but also the Lamb that is victorious, triumphant and life giving.
Gods' covenant is established in the blood of the Lamb. In the book of Revelation we find John in a heavenly vision. In the beginning John is having a vision of a great drama and all of the kind of modern imagery from a great movie. It's almost like an Olympic opening ceremony.
The scroll containing the great script and choreography of the Olympian drama of our salvation needs to be opened, "But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could be found to open the scroll or examine its contents" (Revelation 5.3). So the author, John, is found weeping bitterly because no one is worthy.
LION OF JUDAH
An elder in this heavenly court steps forward and consoles John, telling him that the Lion of Judah, the root of David, has won the right to open the scroll. So John looks around in his vision for the mighty Lion of Judah, the powerful king. He sees Christ, not as a lion of Judah but as a lamb looking as though he has been slain. Instead of the power of the royal King David, he sees the Lamb that is sacrificed.
In the Old Testament, we see the blood of the lamb at Passover painted on the doors of God's people in Egypt so that the angel of death will pass over their homes and God will deliver the people from death to life, from slavery to freedom.
The Passover covenant that holy night began an incredible journey of hope, which included all the ways as we know that hope is often tested and tried. The covenant promise of deliverance for God's people is in the blood of the Lamb who truly delivers the freedom: "Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us."
The covenant of God's promise for us is celebrated at the moment of our Baptism, where we are washed clean in the blood of the Lamb and we are literally immersed in the death and resurrection of the Jesus Christ.
Just as the ancient covenant of God on that eventful night of deliverance from Egypt began a journey or an exodus to freedom and life, so too does the moment of our own Baptism begin a journey. This journey is in many ways similar to the 40 years of God's people in the wilderness.
The covenant begins for a people and for individuals a journey of communion. The book of Revelation gives the dramatic and very colourful view of the heavenly liturgy of the victorious Lamb of God. It is a picture of the hope and glory for all those who persevere in the communion with Jesus.
The 40 years in the desert is a very good indication of length and enormity of the work of creating communion. Indeed the Bread of Life is the food of this communion, the food of remembering what Jesus has done, the food of celebrating and the food of realizing the covenant that has been made in the blood of Jesus Christ.
As we begin to look at this communion in Jesus Christ the Lamb of God, a helpful illustration from our own lives is found in our Moms and Dads in the grace and gift of marriage. When couples exchange their wedding vows and enter the covenant of love and life, they are delivered from the slavery of isolation and aloneness. This deliverance begins with a great flourish of commitment and passion and indeed life-generating love.
But we all know that there is much more to it than the wedding day. There is the 40 years of developing the communion of love that sustains the covenant promise. I remember celebrating a 50th anniversary with dear friends Monica and Archie about 15 years ago.
TRICKLE DOWN LOVE
I was wondering, and asked them, how they were able to give sufficient love to each one of their 11 children. They said this: "Father Gary, we never thought too much about loving the children; we knew that if we focused on loving each other in all the good times and bad times, the kids would catch it. It would trickle down."
Very wise words from a couple who had truly entered into communion in love, which continually sustained the covenant promise that they had made to each other. The covenant with the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, is of course definitively established in his death and resurrection of and it is given historical realization in our own Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Eucharist.
Yet like marriage, the covenant is only the beginning. There is more. There is communion.
Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life, is the food for the journey, is the food of communion. It is precisely this Holy Communion in the Lamb that sustains the covenant of love, so that the Lamb of God, Jesus, becomes the way of living the Christian life.
Jesus the Bread of Life is the food for the journey that we receive in the Holy Eucharist. Thus the heavenly liturgy so dramatically portrayed in the book of Revelation is lived in our eucharistic assembly each Sunday. It is an encounter with the Lamb of God-Bread of Life.
The Gospel of John chapter 6.25-59 is the discourse on the Bread of Life that invites each of us into an ever-deeper relationship in the mystery of God's own Trinitarian life of communion. Jesus speaks to us in the Gospel of John about the gift of this communion:
"I am the living bread come down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread they shall live forever; the bread I will give is my flesh, for the life of world" (John 6.51).
FLESH AND BLOOD
What can these words mean to me, to us? "My flesh for the life of the world." It is one thing to acknowledge that Jesus the Lamb is sacrificed for the world; to believe that Jesus Christ will give me something, like a miracle of healing or hope or compassion. But these words about consuming his flesh are getting very personal. They get right into my own flesh and blood.
Now we are talking about a mutual indwelling. Jesus offers us his life so that we can say with St. Paul and many other Christians through the centuries, "It is Christ that is living in me."
The communion of mutual indwelling is the journey of our lives, and it is much the same as the ancient journey of God's people from Egypt to the Promised Land. It just takes time to "get it," to live the covenant every day, to believe that this is the Lamb of God that takes ways the sins of the world.
I've often meditated on the words the priest says just before Holy Communion as he holds up the Blessed Sacrament: "This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper."
Is that true? Is that real? I believe it is.
If I watch the news, if I see what's going on in the world, I believe those words are making a radical difference in the world. They're keeping the whole world going. We just have to see the news every day and we can see the incredible amount of sin and evil that is perpetrated upon people and upon the earth.
HOLDING UP JESUS
How is it that it continues to keep going, if not for the fact that at every moment of every day, there is a priest who is saying those words? We live in an incredible moment, and every moment of every day there is a priest holding up Jesus the Lamb of God: "This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." That's what's keeping it going.
I want to just share a little story of how this communion works and the impact and change that it can effect in people's lives. And how patient we must be, and how long it takes, just like the 40 years for the people in the desert, learning, experiencing communion with God. About 10 years ago I celebrated the sacraments of Christian initiation - Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Eucharist - with a middle-aged man in the segregation unit of a maximum-security prison. The gathering was made up of myself, the chaplain, this man's sponsor and three fellow inmates who were not Catholic.
How did this sacramental moment happen? How did it come to be in the segregation unit of a maximum-security prison, that someone would be completed and totally initiated through these sacraments?
Well, it happened like this. There was a chaplain who had been in relationship with this man for 10 years. This gentleman had been in prison most of his life. There was a long process of relationship, of communion, of friendship. There was one year of friendship with the sponsor and the RCIA team from the parish.
Eventually this inmate was to be released, and I had always told him as I would visit him during the process of going through the RCIA, "When you get out, you can come and live at the rectory with me and the assistant priest and my father." Eventually the day arrived for release and the chaplain brought him over to the rectory.
When the door opened and my inmate friend came in, I gave him a big hug and said, "Welcome home" and handed him the master key to the whole parish plant. He'd never been home before. He'd never heard the words "Welcome home."
We just stood there and cried in each other's arms for about 15 minutes. It was amazing. But it was only the beginning of the journey of communion.
The freedom and the new life that he experienced through brokenness and suffering took a long time. There were many challenges, successes and failures for my inmate friend.
It was just like the challenges that faced the people in the wilderness. Oftentimes the people in the wilderness longed for the false security of slavery in Egypt. So too did my friend. Yet he persevered and continues with many ups and downs.
When someone has been inside a prison for over 25 years of their life, it's not easy getting out. Yet this is what we are called to, as the holy father describes in his encyclical Spe Salvi (On Christian Hope): "The Latin word con-solatio, 'consolation,' expresses this beautifully. It suggests being with the other in his solitude, so that it ceases to be solitude." That's communion.
Jesus Christ: Lamb of God and Bread of Life is what we celebrate in Mass. It is not a passive receiving on our part but is most essentially a full, active, conscious participation in the life of Jesus Christ; and the life of Jesus is to do the will of His Father, offering his life to the Father.
In the Mass we have a special rite called the Offertory. We often think of it as the time when we take up the collection. But the offertory is about more than taking up the collection. This is where each of us individually join our lives to Christ in our own self-offering.
OFFERED WITH JESUS
Our lives, the total fabric of our lives - all of our loves and hopes, our sorrows, our hurts, our sinfulness are offered during the offertory with Jesus to the Father. There's nothing else we can bring when we come to Mass but our lives. We literally bring our lives to the altar and are offered up with Christ to the Father. And what does that do? It creates a holy communion.
We become an acceptable offering like the Lamb to the Father. God our gracious Father accepts us and in turn gives us his son in Holy Communion. It is this Holy Communion in the Bread of Life that we distinctively bring to the world so that the world might have life.
Just imagine! My life in the Lamb of God participates in taking away the sins of the world. We are not spectators at Mass; we are truly incorporated into the very act of Christ himself taking away the sins of the world.
This Holy Communion is at the heart of God's desire for us individually and as a body. Our communion with Jesus-Bread of Life is not a solitary encounter between me and Jesus but is a communion that is hope for our world.
COMMUNION WITH OTHERS
Holy Communion with Jesus-Bread of Life means a holy communion with others and for others. Pope Benedict in the encyclical Caritas in Veritate, which focuses on integral human development, speaks at length of the necessity of God and relationship with God if peace and justice are to transform our world into a truly life-sustaining human environment of solidarity.
In speaking of the co-operation of the human family in chapter five of Caritas in Veritate the holy father says, "One of the deepest forms of poverty a person can experience is isolation. If we look closely at other kinds of poverty, including material forms, we see that they are born from isolation, from not being loved or from difficulties in being able to love" (no. 53).
POVERTY OF ISOLATION
The great gift of your own parish, the great gift of your diocese here in Edmonton, is the multitude of ways that you reach out to people, all addressing the poverty of this isolation. The building of the kingdom of God is a profoundly challenging thing to do in an individualistic society and yet that is precisely who we are and what we are as the people of God.
Sometimes people want a Jesus who makes things right for the world. But Jesus wants us to make things right for the world.
It is up to us, with the strength of the Spirit of Jesus, to give food to the hungry, to struggle for justice and peace, to be with those who are lonely, oppressed and in pain, to reveal to them the good news of our friendship and, through this friendship, the good news that they are loved by God.
I know why my inmate friend was baptized, confirmed and made his first Holy Communion in segregation in a maximum-security prison - because the chaplain was his friend.
Jesus Christ Lamb of God and Bread of Life is the good news of hope that we proclaim! Jesus Lamb of God and Bread of Life is the hope lived in the members of his body. "The Christian message is not only informative but per-formative. That means: the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known - it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing" (Spe Salvi, no. 2).
'GOD BLESS YOU'
A final story. I have a very good friend that I have given some spiritual direction to over the years. They're a daily communicant, and they get involved in a number of things, but they often say to me that the most significant way that they do ministry on a day-to-day basis that seems to make the biggest difference in people's lives is they say "God bless you" to everybody they meet - at the checkout counter at Safeway, at the gas pumps.
They shared with me a story of saying "God bless you."
My friend, an elderly lady, was getting gas. It was one of these new pumps and she couldn't figure it out. There was a young fellow there who was just finishing up, and she said, "Excuse me, could I get a little help?" "Oh sure, m'am."
This young gentleman comes over and proceeds to show her how to run the gas pump, and she fills up the gas tank. And when she finishes, she says, "Thank you, God bless you." Well, this young man just froze, and tears started to come down his cheeks. He's sobbing. He says, "No one has ever said that to me since I was a little boy. My mom used to say that."
This was a moment of liberation from isolation. This was a moment of grace. It wasn't rocket science. It was a simple "God bless you" and it made a huge difference in somebody's life.
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