Sermon for Epiphany 2 High Mass Sunday 15 January 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Ecce Agnus Dei: ‘Look, there goes the Lamb of God!’
Today is a further riff on the epiphany, but one which connects with every celebration of Mass. The classic three epiphany stories are noted in the longer Mass Preface for Weekdays:
In the coming of the Magi
the King of all the world was revealed to the nations.
In the waters of baptism
Jesus was revealed as the Christ,
the Saviour sent to redeem us.
In the water made wine
the new creation was revealed at the wedding feast.
Today’s encounter is a fourth epiphany, just as Candlemas, the conclusion of the season, is a fifth. I’d like us to consider briefly the nature of these epiphanies or revelations, as that preface describes them, and then, equally briefly, the particularity of this one.
Epiphany is one of those words like ‘icon’ that has passed from our vocabulary into wider, and sometimes slightly bizarre, usage in English (and probably other languages as well).
A recent venture into Google led me quickly to something called ‘Epiphany Insightful digital marketing’ – with offices in London, Leeds and, wait for it, Sydney. If you’re curious, they are:
‘a multi-award-winning agency that believes in better digital marketing. Specialising in SEO, PPC, website development, social media and conversion rate optimisation, we manage global biddable, earned and owned media campaigns for brands across a diverse range of verticals.’
I like ‘Conversion rate optimisation’: perhaps, after all, there may be a place for ‘Epiphany’ in the brave new world of the Church of England.
Scrolling down I found several online dictionary resources. Some of them were interactive, as in the voters’ choice on Yahoo:
What does epiphany mean?
A revelation! A deep awareness of something. I had an epiphany about my ex-husband: he is an idiot.
We all have moments of sudden understanding like that – though I hope not exactly that one – as we grow up and start reflecting on our lives, choices, failures and successes. So an epiphany is version of a learning process in all human lives: that imperceptible movement from something catching the eye to something understood, a process crucial to religious experience, from reading the bible to the deep living encounter with God in prayer, and above all in the Eucharist and other sacraments of the church.
But today’s epiphany moment in the life of John the Baptist is with us all year and at every Mass; the invitation to communion at most Masses, and the Agnus Dei at all of them, invite us into this encounter with God. We hear and say the words so often that we may forget that. Yet we are being catapulted into the middle of the gospel, and at a moment when it was still fresh and new.
Because it is so familiar we may not often interrogate what it means. At the invitation to communion, ‘Behold the Lamb of God,’ we answer ‘Lord I am not worthy’, using the words of the centurion who dares to speak to Jesus on behalf of his servant, but doesn’t wish to overstep the mark by asking him into his house. We remind ourselves that the Eucharist is a generous gift of God: we don’t earn it; it is given.
Now, turning to the detail of the statement, what is the ‘lamb’ doing here? At the core of the gospels is a repeated challenge to recognise Jesus, or a failure to get it. We might expect, as at the baptism, an explicit description of his status and role: ‘this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased’ So why a lamb? Why is this epiphanic moment of recognition, as John suddenly sees Jesus for who he really is, expressed in this livestock image?
Used as we are to the passover story, Passiontide quotations from Isaiah, and the liturgical bits of the Book of Revelation, we most likely make a swift equation with the Passover Lamb, which segues into ‘the Lamb who was slain’ in Revelation. But, logical commentators have objected, the passover lamb is not a sacrifice. Also it doesn’t take sins away, as John says Jesus does: that was the role of the scape-goat. Sheep and goats, as our Lord reminds us elsewhere, are to be separated.
The Isaiah parallel is from the passage about the Suffering Servant: 53.7
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.
But the scholars object that in John’s epiphany the Lamb ‘takes away’ the sins of the world; in Isaiah the Servant ‘bears’ or ‘takes on himself’ the sins of many – rather in the manner of the scape-goat – which is, they insist again, not the same (it seems to me that the effect for us is the same, but let that pass). Several other obvious scriptural links can be made: think of the non-sacrifice of Isaac, where Abraham says to his son that God will provide the ‘lamb’ for the sacrifice (that turns out to be a ram, if we’re going to be pedantic).
This is all a bit academic. Perhaps the power of this epiphany lies in a simpler, more immediate, response. The lamb is vulnerable and does not do harm: it is killed, even in the Passover story, for food, as well as with ritual signficance. There is a violated innocence and a sense of weakness crushed by power in the image.Also, the passover lamb may not be a sacrifice offered in the Temple, but in a sheep-based agrarian economy, killing a lamb as part of the Passover observance certainly demonstrated how serious the family were about their religion – lambs were currency. It is a ‘sacrificial’ act oin that simple sense.
Calling Jesus ‘the Lamb of God’, is a shorthand communication, a message that Jesus is God’s most precious gift: God’s own self, given to the world that we might know how serious God is about us. God can give us nothing more than Jesus. As a result of Jesus’ innocent suffering and death there is no need for any lambs to be religiously slaughtered ever again. We need to keep hearing this message because some Christians get caught up in glorifying Jesus’ suffering so much that they get trapped in their own world of pain and sense of victimhood and go looking for more. Jesus never sought suffering. He bore what came his way. The same must true for us: Christians are not meant to be smiling masochists. We don’t need to seek out suffering; we share the Lamb of God’s sacrifice in the ordinary losses and failures of life, which are redeemed and made good by him in eternity.
The Mass preface I mentioned earlier also says:
For at this time we celebrate your glory, made present in our midst.
At every Mass we are offered an epiphany, if only we will notice it: we are reminded that when we are baptized into Jesus’ death and enter his service we also share in his resurrection and glory, because he bears, and bears away, the sins of the world.