We are beckoned to stillness and wonder and understanding steeped in mystery as we leave behind distractions and preconceptions and presumptions.
At Mass, just before receiving Holy Communion, the priest gives a direction to the congregation. Holding high the consecrated Host, he says, “Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who takes away the sins of the world.”
These words belong to St. John the Baptist (Jn 1:29) who pronounces them for the sake of those within earshot to acknowledge Jesus “coming toward him” so that “he might be made known.” It’s interesting that John does not say listen to the Lamb of God or study the teachings of the Lamb of God. He says instead “Behold”. The 12th-century Cistercian Abbot Gilbert of Hoyland noted that “human reason desires something more than to believe. What more? To behold.” What is it about beholding?
St. Gregory the Great answers that “when the lover beholds the object of their love, they are inflamed even more toward it.” This is why we keep photos of family members on our desk and in places where we look often. We want our love for our loved ones to become ever more inflamed. Beholding does that.
Beholding is an act of attention. Jordan Peterson explains that attention is not the same as thinking. Attention is watching to see what is there in front of your eyes. We then guide ourselves as a consequence of what we perceive via attention. Paying attention is the capacity to look beyond merely what we know so as to encounter what is so much more. Attention actually transforms thought, if we let it.
“God’s radiance vivifies. And those who behold God therefore receive life.”
The priest invites us with “Behold” in order to beckon us to stillness and wonder and understanding steeped in mystery as we leave behind distractions and preconceptions and presumptions. Even more: It is precisely by beholding God that we become like God. St. Irenaeus of Lyons marvels at the way “God’s radiance vivifies. And those who behold God therefore receive life.” How much Jesus wants to impart his life to us, which is what the Eucharist is all about.
But why are we beholding a lamb and not a lion, or an eagle, or some other fearsome creature? Scott Hahn points out the irony of it:
The title ‘lamb’ seems almost comical in its inappropriateness. Lambs don’t usually rank high on lists of most admired animals. They are not particularly strong, clever, quick, or handsome. Other animals would seem more worthy. Yet, it is the Lamb who leads an army of hundreds of thousands of men and angels, striking fear in the hearts of the wicked (Rv 6:15-16). This last image, of the fierce and frightening Lamb, is almost too incongruous to imagine with a straight face.
But it has to be a lamb, and the 14th-century Carthusian Ludolph of Saxony tells us why:
By saying Behold the Lamb of God, John the Baptist meant that Jesus had been sent from God to be a most perfect offering. Christ is particularly identified with the lamb rather than any other beasts because the paschal lamb prefigures more expressly the innocent Christ who would offer himself in sacrifice. The lamb was led to the slaughter but did not open its mouth.
How crucial it is for us constantly to behold, in faith and adoration and thanksgiving, the Lamb who lays down his life out of love for us. The 9th-century German Benedictine monk Haymo of Halberstadt gives us this encouragement: “Behold the Innocent among sinners, the Just among the reprobate, the Reverent among the impious. No sin could be found in him, and that is why he can take away the sins of the world.” And Ludolph of Saxony shows us a perfect way to behold Jesus:
O Lamb of God, may you acknowledge me, a poor sinner, among the sheep you will place at your right hand! But first forgive my sins and offenses, so that you may recognize me even better!