Taken as a whole, today’s readings can, I think, be summarized in a single sentence: The Son of God became a servant so that by becoming a sacrifice he would be the Savior of mankind.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these names and titles, beginning with the final statement from today’s Gospel, a declaration uttered by John the Baptist at the Jordan River: “Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.” This testimony to the identity of Jesus is a key theme in the Gospel of John, as indicated in the Evangelist’s theological commentary after Jesus’ discourse to Nicodemus: “Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (3:18).At the close of his Gospel, John explains that his testimony was written so “that you may [come to] believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name” (20:31). We cannot begin to understand fully the servanthood and sacrifice of Jesus without first recognizing he is the Son of God.
The Old Testament contains a number of prophetic passages about a coming servant of the Lord who would establish God’s reign and bring peace to Israel. Isaiah has several “servant songs.” The servant song in Chapter 49 closely aligns the servant with Israel, which highlights the fact that salvation is from the Jews (see Jn 4:22).
But the servant emerges from Israel; he is a man with a singular identity and possessing unique qualities, through whom salvation will come not only to Israel but to all men: “I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” The season of Christmas fo-cuses on the remarkable and radical fact that the Son became a servant, leaving the glory of heaven to dwell among men.
The eternal Word, in becoming man, willingly became a servant and embraced the work of sacrifice set before him. “From the beginning of his public life,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “at his baptism, Jesus is the ‘Servant,’ wholly consecrated to the redemptive work that he will accomplish by the ‘baptism’ of his Passion” (No. 565). One can only imagine the shock caused by John the Baptist’s emphatic exclamation, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
Under the Law, there were several animals that were sacrificed at various times for the sins of the people; these included pigeons, doves and sheep (see Lv 12:6). And among sheep there were three types: rams, ewes and lambs. Why was Jesus identified as the “Lamb of God”?
“It is the lamb,” answered Origen, “that we find offered in the perpetual sacrifices [see Ex 29:38].” It also points back to the blood of the unblemished Passover lambs that liberated the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt (Ex 12).
The cross is at the heart of the New Exodus, an act of humility, sacrifice and love liberating man from the power of sin and death. Those who do not recognize Jesus as the Son of God look upon the cross and see failure and shame. But those who know that Jesus is the Lamb of God see love and grace.
Those who see the Savior on the cross and become united to him through baptism are, in the words of St. Paul, those “who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy.” They are called, by grace, to be sons and daughters of God.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.