When John the Baptist saw Jesus at the Jordan River and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” he was proclaiming a profound truth about the mission of the Messiah. Jesus was sent into the world for sinners, whose coming was foretold by Isaiah, and whose mission would be to bring sinners back to God. How was he to do this?
In Old Testament times on the Day of Atonement the Jewish people would choose a goat. The Temple priest would draw up a list of the sins of the people, while at the same time calling the people to repent. Placing his hands on the goat’s head, he pressed down, thereby imposing the sins on the goat, as if the goat alone was guilty. Loaded down with the sins of the people, the goat was chased out into the desert.
Was this the thinking of John the Baptist that all we have to do is dump our sins on Jesus and then forget about them? Is it possible for it to be that simple?
Yes, Jesus takes away our sins in the sense that through him we have forgiveness of our sins. When we are forgiven, a great burden is lifted from our shoulders and we are able to begin anew. But we also have to accept responsibility for our sins. We don’t automatically become a new person. Our old weaknesses, habits and compulsions are still with us. We still have to struggle to rise above temptation.
Sin is not an object that can be removed for us. The bottom line is, we are sinners. Our sinfulness is not the same as our sins. The first is the disease, the second the symptoms. Sin is a condition in which we live, a condition from which we need to be redeemed. Jesus came to redeem us from that condition, and to enable us to live a new life.
How did Jesus get sinners to change? Not by condemning them or keeping his distance from them, but by inviting them to look within. Jesus put them in touch with that core of inner goodness which exists in every person. Through Jesus’ own goodness, he called forth the goodness in others.
Jesus does the same with us today. Evil can only be overcome by goodness. Here the Sacrament of Reconciliation is of immense help. It is in the sacrament that we can experience the love and mercy that Jesus has for us. It is not an impersonal getting rid of sin but a loving encounter with our Savior, who calls us away from sin to goodness of life.
Victory over sin is a lifelong struggle. At times we make giant leaps and, at other times, we make very little progress. The important thing is to never give up as that is the desire of Satan. The purpose of a good life is not to win the battle, but to fight the battle unceasingly.
We must also remember that besides personal sin and personal redemption, there is social sin and social redemption. The whole human family is afflicted, less then whole, because of sin. Jesus came to bring us back into right relationship with God and with one another.
When at Mass, listen carefully to the invitation to Holy Communion, “Behold, the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world.” How beautiful! How powerful!
– Fr. Dennis, January 15, 2017