In the first chapter of Saint John’s Gospel, John the Baptist, seeing Jesus walking toward him as he baptized in the River Jordan, according to the Latin Vulgate translation of the Sacred Scriptures, says: Ecce agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccatum mundi. Or, in English translation: “This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”1
During the part of the Mass just before the reception of Holy Communion, the priest uses these same words as he elevates the consecrated host over the chalice containing the consecrated wine.
For Catholics, just as the words of the Baptist alerted his listeners not only to a life-changing encounter but to a cosmos-altering event, the words invoked by the priest to the kneeling congregation draw their attention to this same reality.
In the case of the Mass, this reality, by the reception of Holy Communion, which Catholics also refer to as “the Eucharist,” moves from one that is externally visible to one that is internally accessible.
Just as it is not intuitively obvious to the casual observer that the elevated bread and wine are Christ’s body and blood, it was not glaringly clear to those gathered to hear and perhaps be baptized by John that the man walking toward him was the Lamb of God, the only begotten Son of the Father, God in the flesh.
In one of his sermons, Saint Augustine, who lived in the fifth century, noted that, unlike other food, which becomes us, as the well-known saying “You are what you eat” indicates, by receiving the Eucharist, “we become what we receive.”2
Eucharist is the Greek word for giving thanks. By becoming what we receive, like Christ, we, too, become thanksgiving to the Father. This receiving and becoming are only made possible by Jesus’ passion and death. The Lamb of God, after all, is a sacrificial lamb.
Becoming thanksgiving ourselves means that we are also to become a sacrifice. This is precisely what Saint Paul refers to when, at the very beginning of the twelfth chapter of his Letter to the Romans, he writes: “I urge you therefore, brothers [and sisters], by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.”3
Catholics say that in the Eucharist Jesus gives himself to us “body, blood, soul, and divinity.” In exchange, we give ourselves to the Father, through him by the power of their Holy Spirit, body, blood, soul, and humanity, which is to say wholly and without reservation.
This exchange is only made possible by the Son’s becoming human, what we call his Incarnation. This is brought into bold relief by the words said inaudibly by the deacon while pouring water into the wine that is to be consecrated: “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”4
In response to the priest’s words “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb,” the kneeling assembly replies: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”5
In this sacrament, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the world’s sins, doesn’t say the healing word. Now really (i.e., sacramentally) present in the consecrated bread and wine, he himself is the healing Word.
In Revelation, “angels who surrounded the throne and the living creatures and the elders,” the number of whom were “countless,” “cried out in a loud voice”
Worthy is the Lamb that was slainIn a Roman Catholic context, we give Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, honor, and glory and blessing by letting ourselves be transformed by our reception of Holy Communion.
to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength,
honor and glory and blessinga 6
The word “Mass” comes from the Latin word missa, which, in this context, means to be sent forth and not merely dismissed. Missa, in turn, is related to the Latin word missio, from which we derive the word “mission.” Having received the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, we are sent forth to make him present wherever we go.
At the end of Mass, the Dismissal is given by the deacon. I’ll end with one of the several forms of the Dismissal: Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.7
1 John 1:29.↩
2 Saint Augstine, Easter Sermon, 227.↩
3 Romans 12:1.↩
4 The Roman Missal, The Order of Mass, sec. 24.↩
5 The Roman Missal, The Order of Mass, sec. 132.↩
6 Revelation 4:11-12.↩
7 The Roman Missal, The Order of Mass, sec. 144.↩