Last week I began my homily with these words: “When you look at the crucifix, what do you see?”
I asked folks if they saw love, unconditional, self-sacrificing love.
I asked folks if they saw the early church, Paul and Barnabas and the martyrs who gave their lives because they believed that Jesus was truly the Son of God, the Messiah, God’s promise fulfilled.
I asked folks if they saw themselves fulfilling the new commandment that Jesus gave in Sunday’s gospel, “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.”
The crucifix, the central image of the Christian life is such a challenge and incredible hope.
Today I asked that you look at the front of our new altar. When you look at the Lamb, what do you see? What you understand?
Before I begin to explain the symbolism, I ask that you first look at the Lamb, then the altar, then Christ on the crucifix and then finally me.
Please gaze upon the Lamb.
“Behold the Lamb of God.” To understand why this title is used for Christ, we must first appreciate the celebration of the Passover.
Recall that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. God heard the painful cries of his people, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God sent Moses to deliver them from bondage.
After Moses had performed nine signs, Pharaoh’s heart was still unmoved. Finally, God told Moses to have each family take a one-year-old unblemished male Lamb; slaughter the Lamb; paint the door post and lentil of every house where they would eat its roasted flesh with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.
That night, the angel of death would “Passover” the homes protected by the blood, but take the lives of the firstborn children unprotected by the blood of the lamb. Because of that blood sacrifice, Pharaoh let the people go: they went from slavery to freedom, from a land of sin to the Promised Land, from death to new life.
The prophets, especially Isaiah used the image of the Lamb to describe the promised Messiah who would be both the sacrificial lamb to atone for sin and also the suffering servant, one who would fulfill God’s plan of salvation. The Psalms use the image of the good Shepherd as the Messiah who would bring God’s people to safety.
In the Gospels, Jesus is specifically identified as the Lamb of God both as a sacrificial offering for sin and the suffering servant. John the Baptist proclaims, “Behold. There is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” (John 1:29)
The imagery of the “Lamb of God” becomes most clear in the passion narratives of the Gospels. In St. John’s Gospel, Pilate condemned Jesus to death on the preparation day for Passover at the very hour when the priests began to slaughter Passover lambs in the temple.
After Jesus’ death, the soldiers did not break his bones in fulfillment of the Scripture where none of the Passover lamb’s bones were to be broken. Instead, the soldier thrust a lance into Jesus’ side, piercing his heart from which blood and water gushed. This has always been interpreted as signs of the life-giving sacraments of Holy Eucharist and Baptism.
At the crucifixion, Jesus, the innocent and sinless victim, takes all of our sins upon himself. Not only does he bear our sins and suffer the punishment for us due to them, but he also expiates our sins, that is, taking them away through his death. His death gives us life, forgiveness and reconciliation.
At the crucifixion, Jesus, is the priest who offers himself as victim on the altar of the cross. Through his blood, Jesus washes away sin. Yet, unlike the Passover lamb that was slaughtered, roasted and eaten, our Lord rose from the dead conquering both sin and death.
Jesus has truly delivered us from the slavery of sin, showed us the path of salvation, and given us the promise of everlasting life.
In the book of Revelation, our second reading, the Lamb is the one who claims victory over the ravages of sin and evil. “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and praise!” (Revelation 5:12)
Jesus is the King of Kings, and the Lord of Lords (Revelation 17:14) who will be victorious against the powers of evil and who will invite the righteous to the wedding feast of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9), the union of the church, the new Jerusalem in heaven with God forever.
We will hear in the preface: “By the oblation (that is, the sacrifice) of his body, Jesus brought the sacrifices of old to fulfillment in the reality of the Cross and, by commending himself to you Father for our salvation, he showed himself the Priest, the Altar, and the Lamb of sacrifice.”
From Passover meal, to the prophets, to John the Baptist, to the passion and death of Jesus, to his glorious resurrection and the promise the holy city Jerusalem coming out of heaven from God whose Temple is the Lamb and whose lamp is the Lamb, this is the mystery we will proclaim at this and every Eucharist as the priest proclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.”
How blessed indeed are we. Yet this imagery and symbolism which is deep with meaning and power is almost lost in our culture today.
Society has changed enormously in the last 20 years. Children and adults are saturated by the constant bombardment of entertainment and information.
Children are spending more time in a host of activities than ever before. Soccer, dance, baseball, play practice, screen time…the list goes on and on. Where do they/we have a chance to rest in the Lord and to hear the voice of Jesus, the good Shepherd, the Lamb of God?
Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is a hands-on, developmentally oriented faith formation ministry based on Montessori principles to help form and teach children the mysteries of our faith. It began in our parish 17 years ago with a few children and parents. Currently, it serves about 100 children from ages 3 to 12.
It takes place in a specially prepared environment called the Atrium, which has child sized tables, chairs, and hands-on materials called “works” for children to explore the teachings of our faith. Children are grouped into three levels, ages 3-6, 6-9 and 9-12.
Over the past 18 months, the Faith Formation staff have been discerning how we are meeting the needs of children and families in passing on our Catholic faith and forming missionary disciples. This has led us to the conclusion that young people need more hands-on experience, more time to reflect, more opportunities to engage in a direct relationship with God. Catechesis of the Good Shepherd offers such an opportunity for the unique spirituality of the child to develop.
Every year we turn away families who are interested in this ministry because we don’t have enough room or teachers.
We are blessed that this coming year will now be able to offer Catechesis of the Good Shepherd ministry in three permanent rooms in the former St. Mike’s Tykes space. We are planning to expand our offerings to serve more families.
Yet in order to do this, we need your help.
First, we need your prayers. This is a huge task and we undertake it humbly.
Second, we invite you to fall in love with this method of faith formation. Please take some time after Mass to tour the Atrium in the Gathering Space rooms 1, 2 and 3. Take a look at the materials, touch them, ask questions and envision your child in this environment.
Third, we invite to discern volunteering in this ministry. We have jobs of all kinds. We need woodworkers, sewers, bathroom assistants, people to help clean and organize spaces and yes, we need catechists and assistants.
Catechist formation is intense and personally transformative. It requires 90 hours of time usually over a one or two year period. This year we are blessed to have this training here at our parish from June 24 – 29 at no cost. Please speak with those in the Atrium after Mass for more information.
The depth, beauty and symbolism of our faith is not merely head knowledge, but most of all an experience and an encounter with the Good Shepherd, the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ.
Let us mindfully and lovingly encounter him in this Holy Eucharist today and every time we gather to celebrate these sacred mysteries.