Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. These words from this morning's gospel are quite familiar to us. At one of the most powerful moments of the Mass, right before the reception of Holy Communion, we all gaze upon the Eucharist and hear these words. Using these words when we do, we make a powerful connection between Jesus Christ, the crucified one, and the Holy Eucharist. The same Jesus who was born of the Virgin Mary and who offered himself for the salvation of the world becomes present on the altar and offered as a pleasing sacrifice to "take away the sins of the world." However, this can be one of those phrases that we say so often that we sometimes might fail to ponder their meaning. What does it mean to say that Jesus is the lamb of God, and what does it mean to say he takes away the sins of the world?
A lamb is a sacrificial image. Recall that in the Old Testament God's people would offer sacrifice in the temple. They would take the best of what they had from their livestock or their harvest and offer it to God as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Yet, another reason they would sacrifice animals was as a reparation for sin. Especially on the day of Atonement, the people would make a sin offering. The imagery is profound: the people would take two goats. Upon one goat they would lay all the sins of the people, and send it out into the desert. The other goat they would sacrifice in reparation. The two goats are important. The first one was sent away as a way of getting rid of the sin itself. If all the sins were placed upon the animal, and the animal sent away, it would take the sins with it. The second was offered in reparation, as a way to apologize for sin. These sin offerings, meaningful as they were, were symbols of expiation. We believe that these offerings could not actually take away sin. The essence of what was needed to take away sin was there, namely a perfect offering in reparation for sin, and a destruction of sin itself. However, an animal cannot suffice because it was not an animal that sinned in the first place.
Enter the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. Jesus is no vicarious offering. Jesus is no lamb standing in place of the human race. Jesus does not come as an outsider. Rather, Jesus comes as one like us in all things but sin. Jesus is fully human. When Jesus freely offers himself on the cross he fulfills the two aspects of sin offering. As the unblemished Lamb without sin, his self-offering is a perfect act of reparation. His offering in obedience to the Father makes up for our sinful disobedience from the time of Adam to the last day. He makes reparation, he repairs the damage caused by sin by his own self-gift. Second, by becoming fully human Jesus takes upon himself our weakness, our sinfulness. Though he never sinned himself, Jesus takes our sin upon him. We saw this last week when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan. By plunging into the water, he repented for all of us. So, all the sin of humanity is taken by Jesus and destroyed, when he dies upon the cross. Unlike the lamb in the temple, the cross is not a symbolic sacrifice; but Jesus, fully God and fully human, is able to take away the sin of the world.
The Eucharist is the same sacrifice. We believe and profess that the Eucharist is the same sacrifice of Christ on the Cross presented in a new and unbloody way. Every time we celebrate this sacrament we remember the sacrifice of Christ, who took our sins upon us and offered a perfect sacrifice in reparation for sin. No wonder, then, at every Mass we repeat the words of St. John: Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.