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February 24, 2017

In imitation of Christ

As the Universal Church reverts to the Ordinary Time in her liturgical calendar, our Lord Jesus is offered to the world as the Light to the nations, and the One who takes away the sins of the world. Both descriptions accentuate the messianic character of Christ’s ministry. As Light to the nations, he dispels the darkness of sin and division, shining through the entire cosmos and illumining our path back to the Father. As the Lamb of God, he offers himself to be bruised and battered for the sake of a broken humanity and a sin-riddled world.

Thus, today, we are invited to reflect on the ministry of Christ and to imitate his kenotic (self-emptying) sacrifice on the Cross. In the First Reading, the Lord declares: “I will make you a light to the nations; that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” This is a very emphatic call for us to share in the missionary mandate of the Church. In the Second Reading, St Paul speaks about his own call to be an apostle; and also, the universal call to holiness made out to “all those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In the Gospel, John the Baptist presents Jesus as the promised Messiah. The Baptist’s favourite title for Jesus is “Lamb of God”. This is also one of John the Evangelist’s favourite titles. He uses it in his Gospel, and then another twenty-nine times, in the Book of Revelation. This title brings together three significantancient images in Jewish life whereby to call Christ the Lamb of God is to say that those ancient images are fulfilled in him.

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Firstly, in the Old Testament, the Jewish people were obliged to sacrifice a lamb twice a day for the atonement of the sins of the people(cf. Exodus 29:39). Therefore, the lamb symbolized the price paid for sin. Secondly, in the Passover ceremony, each family sacrificed and ate a lamb to recall their liberation from Egypt in the days of Moses. This was the night that God allowed the death of all the firstborn children and animals of the Egyptians, but spared those of the Hebrews. To escape the angel of death, the Hebrews were commanded to kill alamb and mark their doorposts with its blood. Accordingly, the Passover lamb signified God’s merciful and saving love. Finally, a lamb going silently and compliantly to be slaughtered is one of the images used to describe the coming Messiah. He was going to take Israel’s sins upon himself and wipe them away through his suffering obedience. And so, by calling Jesus the “Lamb of God,” John reminds us that all those Old Testament images had been pointing towards Christ.

Today, we are called to imitate our Lord as the Lamb of God and Light to the nations. We imitate the Lamb through our humility, docility, perseverance, tolerance of one another’s frailties, and prayerful submission to the will of God and of those in legitimate authority. We imitate the Light to the nations by our Christian witness and missionary zeal. There is a saying that our actions speak so loudly that our voices are hardly ever heard; so, we must be a light to those around us by our practical imitation of Christ and the saints. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus, challenges us to: “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16) Let these words resonate in our hearts today! Also, Pope Paul VI was right on the mark when he said that: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (Evangelii Nuntiandi #41). We need to pay attention to that!

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Saint Damien of Molokai was a strong, hard-working, athletic priest who went to minister to a leper colony in Hawaii in the 1800s.He had been sent there on a three-month assignment, but when he saw the colony’s destitution, Father Damien decided to stay and work there full-time.He built hundreds of small houses to replace the miserable huts the dying lepers were living in. He laid pipes to bring in fresh water from inland springs. He built coffins and created a cemetery to bury the dead who previously had been piled into shallow, mass graves. He established small farming plots, built clinics and chapels, formed a choir and orchestra, tended the lepers’ hideous wounds with his own hands, and brought dignity, order, work, and hope back to the crowds of sick who poured into the colony.

For eleven years, he worked there tirelessly. Then one Sunday morning in his twelfth year in Molokai, Fr Damien stood up to read the Gospel passage for the day. He paused, looked out across his crowded church, which he and his lepers had built, and began his sermon: “We lepers…” he said. The congregation gasped. With those words, he had informed them that at last he too had contracted the terrible disease. For four more years, he continued labouring on as his body rotted away, until death took him to his reward. Blessed Damien was following the example of his Lord, Jesus Christ, who freely took upon himself the sorrows and suffering that sin had let loose among us. Only out of love for us, the sinless Son of God offered himself as a victim on the cross for our salvation, thus becoming the sacrificial Lamb of God.

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Dear friends, we all have the same fundamental vocation – to become holy, to shape our lives in imitation of Christ. This is exactly what St Paul means when he tells us in the Second Reading: “You who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy.” Therefore, let us make our own  the words of today’s Responsorial Psalm: “Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.” Amen!

 


 

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