Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) | Fr John O’Connor reflects on Christ’s solidarity with us, not only in great moments of human suffering but even in the small daily challenges that can diminish and embitter us.
When people think of Jesus’s solidarity with us imperfect human beings, they tend to focus on the extreme moments, when Jesus’s humanity was pushed to its limits. These were times when Jesus was most vulnerable, when his self-sacrifice out of love for us was most apparent. We think, for example, of Jesus being tempted by Satan in the desert when experiencing the greatest imaginable hunger. More terrible still, we remember Jesus’s agonising fear in the Garden of Gethsemane before he was to endure the pain and indignity of the cross.
We rightly see these as particularly powerful examples of Jesus’s solidarity with us because in these events he freely and out of love for us embraced the most terrifying and painful parts of human experience: levels of temptation, fear, and pain that can overwhelm. And the depth of Jesus’s solidarity strikes us with such great force because it did not come cheap. His solidarity and his self-sacrifice go together.
So when we experience serious difficulties ourselves, we have the comfort of knowing that the Lord was there before us – we are not alone in our temptation, fear, and pain. And we also know that despite his terrible suffering, Jesus was vindicated by the Father by being raised from the dead on the third day – this is a message of the greatest hope.
But perhaps in focusing on the more extreme and dramatic instances of Jesus’s self-sacrifice and solidarity with us, we tend to overlook the smaller ways in which Jesus’s self-sacrifice and solidarity were also shown.
I mean things like what it is to be on the receiving end of an unkind word, to be gossiped about and misunderstood and rejected, to undergo all sorts of minor injustices and put-downs. Taken individually, we might not think these so very bad; but, as we frail creatures know all too well, they can slowly accumulate and before we realise it we might find that they have touched all parts of our lives, sapping us of much of our confidence, our energy, and our joy. They can also lead us into dark and unpleasant temptations of resentment, bitterness, and revenge.
Jesus in his daily interactions with his fellow men and women would have experienced much love; but we also know from the Gospels that some gave him a hard time. Being wholly without sin, he would not, however, have been drawn to resentment, bitterness, and revenge; but he would have had the same sorts of painful experiences that in us can lead to destructive emotions and diminished ways of being. So here too he showed solidarity with us and great self-sacrifice.
Today’s Gospel reading I think sheds some light on all this. It begins with John the Baptist declaring about Jesus: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” This symbolism has a long lineage. Lambs were sacrificed by the People of Israel just before leaving slavery in Egypt, and lambs were also sacrificed in the Temple in Jerusalem. And, more poignantly, there are the famous words of the Prophet Isaiah (53:7) on the suffering servant: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter”. So John the Baptist is presenting Jesus as one who is like a sacrificial lamb.
Then John the Baptist goes on to speak of the Spirit descending as a dove upon Jesus. As recounted in the other Gospels, this miraculous event took place at Jesus’s baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. So the mention by John the Baptist of the Spirit descending as a dove upon Jesus in this Sunday’s Gospel reading is almost certainly alluding to this event.
In his baptism, Jesus allowed himself to be baptised with John’s baptism of repentance. Since he was without sin, Jesus certainly did not need to undergo baptism by John. But here again he showed solidarity with fallen and sinful humanity in our frailty. He allowed his whole body to be enveloped by the waters of the Jordan, symbolising that his solidarity with us enveloped all parts of his earthly life – not just the climactic moments, but all parts of it, not least the many minor tribulations he must have experienced on a daily basis.
Perhaps when we are facing serious illness, or a breakdown in a key relationship, or when so much of what we cherish is collapsing about us, we might wish to draw upon the climactic events of Jesus’s life in particular, for strength, comfort, and encouragement. But the challenges that most of us experience most of the time are those smaller niggles and irritations, fears and insecurities, frustrations and disappointments, that come from what life can throw at us again and again. Jesus’s solidarity is there for us at such moments too. He experienced these challenges many times.
Christ is our brother. He is the Lamb of God. He is present with us in our major suffering; but he is just as present with us in the lesser challenges. He is quite simply with us at all points: the life-changing moments and the less significant moments that make up the bulk of most of our lives. And he understands it all without exception, because he was there before us. His whole life was one great act of self-sacrificing love, one great act of solidarity with you and me.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of ‘The Young Saint John the Baptist’ by Giovanni Francesco Susini, c.1610/30 in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.