Last week was the feast of the Baptism of the Lord and this week we find another description of the same Baptism of the Lord, this time by John.
But, why two of them?
Scattered among Ignatius Loyola’s prayer methods is a device called repetition. If a praying session went particularly well, or sometimes if it went badly, Ignatius would instruct the retreatant to repeat the exact same topic for their next session.
To be honest, I admit this was the method I disliked most when I first made the Spiritual Exercises. “Oh no, not again,” I would groan if the retreat director assigned it.
Only later did I begin to understand what repetition was about. It was not that I should try to re-create each and every feeling from the first time. Not even that I should expect to meet God in the same manner. Nor rack my brains more vigorously to figure it out.
Repetition meant simply that I should go to the same shady spot in the forest, the homey place where God and I had met in the previous meditation. If we did not meet again, exactly, then my privilege would be to remember what happened last time, like Mary “pondering these things in her heart.”
This is a reason for the Gospel this weeek. The Church has prescribed a repetition. As in the Exercises, this repetition must have a purpose. Let us look.
Do you see a description of the baptism in this week's Gospel? Pause here if you want to consider it.
Only a minimal description. Something else struck me more, what John the Baptist said as he saw Jesus, words that were not included last week’s reading from Matthew: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”
Behold the Lamb of God. We hear the phrase at every Mass, but most of us never really think about it very much. This Baptism story gives us a chance to do so.
Lambs held a special place in the Jewish temple. An offerer would bring a one (or another animal) in order to sacrifice it. Sacrifice? Why sacrifice? One belief was that since the innocent creature was released from this world by dying, it thus would go up to God’s pure heaven as a gift. And because its roots were thoroughly of the earth, it became a sign of the union between God and the people down below.
Put simply, Jesus, by being baptized, was offering himself like the lamb. He surrendered himself to the waters, just as the lambs were surrendered to the table of sacrifice. And, like a lamb, his roots as a human being were of this earth. But death released him to be the complete union of God with the people. Now, symbolically, he was showing us that he belonged to both realities, in a much more profound way than any simple lamb or pigeon could.
This Second Sunday of Ordinary Time, then, like a prayer repetition, yields deeper understanding of baptism, Jesus’ baptism, and his name, Lamb of God.
Phew. This is a lot of yield for one (or two) Sundays readings. Much of the above consists of “understanding,” but it provides material galore for meditation, both in the week before Sunday’s Mass and during that Mass.*
John Foley S. J.
*If you want to go further, consider this: a scholar named Joachim Jeremias held that the original word for “lamb” in Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke) was “talyã’.” It meant not only “lamb” but also “slave” or “servant.” The Baptist may have intended both meanings: “Behold the Lamb of God,” but also, “Behold the
servant of God.” If so, his words would form a direct reference to the First Reading this Sunday.