Some words take on expanded meanings over time. It wasn’t long ago, for example, that only birds tweeted. Other words develop narrower meanings. Consider the word business, for example, which today primarily means “commercial dealings.” Earlier in history, the word meant any kind of “busy-ness” to which one attended—a sense that lives on in the expression “mind your business.”
The Gospel today has several words whose meanings are now narrower than they were in Jesus’ day. The word lamb for instance, meant not just a young animal but also “boy, son or servant.” In many ways, it functioned the way the word kid does today. The word baptize, meanwhile, meant “to dip repeatedly, plunge, submerge.” Dyers used the word to describe what they did to cloth, and historians used it to explain what a victorious navy did to enemy ships. By Jesus’ day, the word had even expanded its connotation, coming to mean “overwhelm,” a sense Jesus used as he considered what was about to happen to him in Jerusalem (Mk 10:38, Mt 20:22, Lk 12:50). Similarly, the word spirit meant any moving air. Breaths, breezes and storms were all “spirits,” and these could be good or evil in their effects. This word is related to the word we translate today as “soul,” which in several ancient languages also meant “throat.” Just as breath enters the throat, God’s Spirit entered the human soul. A knowledge of these wider meanings helps make sense of today’s Gospel.
We rightly associate Jesus’ title “Lamb of God” with his sacrificial death. In today’s Gospel, however, when John the Baptist called Jesus the “Lamb of God,” he was calling him something like “God’s kid.” The evangelist John uses this image extensively. Jesus is God’s Son who knows everything the Father has to say (Jn 1:18; 14:6-7) and who came to earth to serve the Father’s mission by sharing that message with us (Jn 15:15). John assures us that Jesus has told us everything the Father wants us to know.
Jesus started to share this message only when the Father gave Jesus his own breath with which to speak. The Spirit that came down on Jesus like a dove symbolizes the intimate unity of Jesus and the Father and affirms for the readers of John’s Gospel that the words they encounter represent a message directly from God.
The simplicity of the message is striking. Jesus gives only one commandment in John’s Gospel: “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (Jn 13:35). Jesus illustrated this commandment when he washed his disciples’ feet. Jesus was fully human and felt love in all its forms. Because he knew the Father’s heart, he also knew that all love finds its fulfillment in self-sacrifice and in service. This is what he taught the apostles when he washed their feet. This is what he showed the world when he chose to die rather than betray his commitment to loving service. This love made him stronger than death itself. In Jesus’ commandment to love, we have God’s instructions for conquering death.
John’s Gospel and our second reading remind us that Jesus has submerged us in the same divine breath. Jesus received God’s own Spirit, and the words that came from his throat were God’s own message. His disciples must live the same way. Like a dyer plunging cloth into a vat, God immerses us in the Spirit. Our transformation begins at our baptism but then becomes deeper and richer every time we open ourselves to the Spirit at work in the world.
As possessors of the same Spirit, we need to speak as Jesus taught us. Early Christians, as they brought this message to the world, saw themselves as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, “I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation will reach to the ends of the earth.” This remains our mission today. Imagine a world in which every word from every throat was a promise to love without fear, even fear of death. That is God’s dream for humanity. That was the message that came upon Jesus. That is our challenge as bearers of God’s Spirit to the world.