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Behold, the Lamb of God!

Gospel Commentary for 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

By Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap

ROME, JAN. 18, 2008 ( In the Gospel we hear John the Baptist who, presenting Jesus to the world, exclaims: “Behold the lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world!”

The lamb, in the Bible, as in other cultures, is the symbol of being innocent; it cannot do evil to anyone but only suffer it. Following this symbolism, the first letter of Peter calls Christ “the lamb unspotted” (1:19) who, “reviled, did not revile; when he suffered, he threatened not” (2:23). Jesus, in other words, is par excellence the innocent one who suffers.

It has been written that the suffering of the innocent “is the rock of atheism.” After Auschwitz, the problem was posed in a still more acute way. There are countless books and dramas that have been written about this theme. It feels like being at a trial and hearing the voice of the judge ordering the defendant to stand up. The defendant in this case is God.

What does the faith have to say about all this? First of all, it is necessary that we all, believers and nonbelievers, adopt an attitude of humility, because if faith is not able to “explain” the suffering, much less is reason. The suffering of the innocent is something too pure and mysterious to try to close it up in one of our poor “explanations.” Jesus — who, as far as explanations go, certainly had more than us — faced with the suffering of the widow of Naim and the sisters of Lazarus, knew nothing better to do than to be moved and weep.

The Christian response to the problem of innocent suffering is wrapped up in one name: Jesus Christ! Jesus did not come to give us expert explanations about suffering, he came rather silently to take it upon himself. Taking it upon himself, however, he changed it entirely: from a sign of malediction, he made it an instrument of redemption. Even more: he made it the supreme value, the highest order of greatness in this world. After sin, the true greatness of the human creature is measured by the fact of bearing the least amount of guilt possible and the maximum amount of punishment possible. It is not so much in the one or the other taken separately — that is, in innocence or in suffering — as it is in the co-presence of the two in the same person. This is a type of suffering that brings us closer to God. Only God, in fact, if he suffers, suffers as innocent in an absolute sense.

Jesus, however, did not only give a meaning to innocent suffering, he also conferred a new power on it, a mysterious fruitfulness. Look at what flowed from the suffering of Christ: the resurrection and hope for the whole human race. But look also at what happens around us. How much energy and heroism is often brought out in a couple in the acceptance of a handicapped child, bedridden for years! How much unsuspected solidarity surrounds them! How much otherwise unknown capacity to love!

The most important thing, however, when we speak of innocent suffering, is not to explain it; it is not to increase it with our actions and our omissions. But neither is it enough not to increase innocent suffering; we must also try to relieve the innocent suffering that exists! Faced with a little girl frozen by the cold, who cries because of hunger pains, a man cried out in his heart one day to God: “Oh, God, where are you? Why don’t you do something for that innocent girl?” And God answered him: “I certainly have done something for her: I made you!”

[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]

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Father Raniero Cantalamessa is the Pontifical Household preacher. The readings for this Sunday are Isaiah 49:3, 5-6; 1 Corinthians 1:1-3; John 1:29-34.

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