Today is the Feast of the Birth of John the Baptist. And twenty-five years ago today, on a blazing hot summer morning in Washington D.C. at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, I was ordained a priest.
May I tell you a strange truth? I remember nothing of it. I have seen footage of it, but have no personal memory of the event. I don’t know why my memory is dead in this matter. Perhaps it is the implausibility of the former agnostic in me saying that I would obey the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington and all his successors. Perhaps it is the hippie of a teenager who listened only to The Who and Arrowsmith accepting the laying on of hands as the Gregorian Veni Creator was sung. Perhaps it is the cynical, stubborn, stiff-necked college student with the brass forehead saying that he accepted the mysteries of the faith and would base his life on them.
But of course there have been more dramatic moments in history. Surely the strange event of John the Baptist pointing to Jesus, a full grown man, and calling him the “Lamb of God” must rank up there with the stranger moments in history.
Yes, even more, on this Feast of the Birth of St. John the Baptist we celebrate the birth of the final prophet of the Old Testament. He stood at the culmination of the Old Covenant and emphatically pointed to the new. He drew back the curtain on all that the ancient prophets longed to see. His birth is a great harbinger of a new epoch, the final age of Man. When he points to Christ and then steps back, we see the Old Covenant yield to the new. One era is ending; another is beginning. This birthday bespeaks a coming sea change: something is ending, but something greater is beginning. Types, symbols, and shadows are about to give way to the true reality they signified.
A great and dramatic moment in this “old giving way to the new” occurs when the two meet by the riverside. (It is true, they had already met in utero, as Mary and Elizabeth shared company. John prefigured this riverside meeting by dancing for joy in his mother’s womb at the nearness of Christ). But the drama of this moment at the riverside cannot be overstated, for John supplies a strange and wonderful answer to a question asked 2,000 years before. And the answer he supplies to this question signals that the new has arrived.
To understand the moment we must go back in time to approximately 1900 BC. The place is a hillside called Moriah where Jerusalem would later be built. Abraham has been commanded there by God and has been told to prepare to kill his son, Isaac, in sacrifice. The text says that, upon arriving at the foot of Moriah,
Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?” “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb?” (Gen 22:6-8)
Do not miss the great foreshadowing here: a long-promised son, about to die, carrying wood upon his shoulders, ascending the very hillside where Jerusalem and Golgotha will one day be located. Yes this is a wondrous foreshadowing.
And then comes the great question to his father: “But where is the Lamb?” Yes indeed, where is the Lamb who will die so that I don’t have to? Where is the Lamb whose blood will save my life? Where is the Lamb?
Now you know the rest of that story: an angel stopped Abraham and then pointed to a ram with its horns caught in a thicket. And you may be excused for saying, “Aha, God did provide the lamb—end of story.” But truth be told, this ram, this lamb cannot really save Isaac “Because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb 10:4). Isaac’s death is merely postponed and then it is off to Sheol with him where he will lie and wait for the True Lamb who alone can give eternal life.
And so that question got wafted up onto the breeze and echoed down through the centuries that followed: “But where is the Lamb … where is the Lamb?”
And now we are standing by the banks of the Jordan River 19 centuries later. John the Baptist sees a full grown man coming toward him and says a very strange thing: “Look! There is the Lamb of God!” (Jn 1:29). Yes, there is the true Lamb who alone can take away our sins. John the Baptist supplies a strange and wonderful, though long-delayed, answer to a question Isaac asked 1,900 years before: “Where is the Lamb?” “THERE is the Lamb!”
Happy birthday of John the Baptist. His birth is the culmination of an age, an era, a Covenant. He is the last of the Old Testament prophets. His birth signals an end and a beginning. The Book of Hebrews says, By calling this covenant “new,” [God] has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear (Hebrews 8:13). Hence John would later say, “The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must increase; I must decrease (John 3:29-30).
And happy anniversary for me, a strange stand-in for Jesus, but somehow chosen by Him and ordained by Him 25 years ago today. I do not answer the question “Where is the Lamb?” but rather, “What is He doing here?” At the end of the day, the answer can only be rooted in the mercy of God, who takes away the sins of the world, and of Charles Pope of whom He says, “You’ll do, though it will take a lot of grace.” I know only this: I am unfit to untie His sandal.
May God be praised for the mystery of His plan and the surprise of how He fulfills ancient promises: even me Lord, a strange stand-in for the Lamb of God, but here I am. I’m not sure I signal the beginning or end of anything, just a continuation of the ministry of the Lamb of God, who answered an age-old question and fulfilled an ancient dispensation. And just like John, who pointed to Jesus, here I am doing the same. Thank you, Jesus. The bride is all yours; I am but a worthless groomsman. But do have pity on me and help me to rejoice with you in your bride.
Go to the 3 minute mark to begin the footage of my ordination.