The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Homily: Year B, 4th Sunday of Lent

Readings: 2 Chr 36:14-16, 19-23; Ps 137; Eph 2:4-10; Jn 3:14-21

Well, here we are, smack dab in the middle of Lent, and we find the Church reminding us to be joyful; for this weekend we celebrate Laetare Sunday with its theme of hope and joy in anticipation of Easter. It’s a theme that threads its way through all of the readings we just heard, a theme reminding us that despite the darkness we so often encounter, despite all the sorrows and challenges of life, as Christians we have good reason to be joyful.

Lent, you see, is a time of hope and joy because it is also a time of forgiveness. This is the message of our readings: that no matter our sinfulness, when we turn to God in repentance, He forgives. We see this clearly manifested in our first reading from Chronicles.

God’s chosen people, driven from their homes like cattle, exiled to pagan Babylon for their sins, live in the darkness of despair. As we just heard in our Responsorial Psalm, by the streams of Babylon they sat and wept when they remembered Zion…and so they repented. And God forgave. But he punctuated His forgiveness in a way they could never have anticipated. He has Cyrus, King of Persia, free them from their bondage and allow them to return to Jerusalem. The pagan Cyrus even sends them off with a blessing from the Lord, the one true God.
By the Waters of Babylon

Here we see not only God’s forgiveness, but also a demonstration of His love, a mere foretaste of the love He will offer on the Cross, a love far beyond anything we could ever imagine. It’s this love that Jesus shares with Nicodemus as the two of them meet in darkness.

Have you ever had a conversation with someone who was a lot smarter than you? I have a dear friend who’s a small-particle physicist. Years ago we shared an office when we both taught at the Naval Academy. I was always interested in what he was working on, and so I once asked him about a paper he had just presented at a conference.  For the next 20 minutes I listened to what I am sure he believed was a very basic outline of his work. Oh, I caught the general gist of what he was telling me, but most of it was way over my head. So I just smiled and occasionally nodded.

I suspect that Nicodemus felt a bit like that as he listened to Jesus, and heard so much that he didn't understand.

He came to Jesus looking for answers, answers about who Jesus was, as well as answers to humanity’s greatest questions. Nicodemus was an important man, “a ruler of the Jews”, John tells us, and so he approached Jesus only at night to avoid being seen. This ruler and teacher of Israel, this esteemed member of the Sanhedrin, is courageous enough to go to Jesus, but too fearful to approach the Light of the World except under the cover of darkness.

But at least he goes to Jesus, doesn’t he? And he listens. He listens to the words of the Word of God and hears a summation of all our hopes and joys:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” [Jn 3:16-17]
Unlike His teaching to the crowds, Jesus doesn’t speak in parables to Nicodemus. Indeed, He calls on the Torah, the Law, and refers to the scene in the Book of Numbers in which Moses, obeying God’s command, ties a bronze serpent to a pole and lifts it up for the people to see. Looking on it, the people are healed from the bites of the poisonous snakes that plagued them.

In the same way, Jesus tells Nicodemus, the world will be healed of its sinfulness when it looks on the Son of Man lifted high. But Nicodemus doesn't yet realize that Jesus is talking about the Cross. In time he will understand the full meaning of Jesus’ words, just not yet.

This lifting up of the Cross, brothers and sisters, becomes our task, if we’re courageous enough to do it. We must lift Jesus up on the Cross, lift Him up and show this sign of God's healing love to the world. This is why we make the Sign of the Cross. This is why we have a crucifix raised high above the sanctuary. Yes, God so loved the world…

Good and evil, hope and despair, sin and forgiveness, light and darkness – Jesus teaches and Nicodemus gets a lesson he will never forget, even if he does not yet understand its full meaning. For as Jesus teaches this teacher of Israel, He clearly defines and separates darkness from light, the darkness of sin from the Light of the World.

How did John put it? “…the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil.” [Jn 3:19] It is this Light, and this Light alone, that illuminates the path, our path, the way to eternal life.

Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks to the apostles at the Last Supper, with these words: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” [Jn 14:6] Jesus calls us to follow the way, to step out of the darkness and into His Light.

Only those ashamed of their lives choose to live in darkness. Jesus calls us to let go of all that shames us, to set aside our fears, and to accept His forgiveness. God sees and knows all of our shame, brothers and sisters – our stupidity, our pettiness, our spiritual malignity – and He takes it all on Himself. He bears the full weight of our sins as He hangs from that Cross, and does so out of a love that is beyond our comprehension.

In that love He calls us to repentance, just as He called the Chosen People who in exile wept and remembered. In our brokenness we are like the exiles in Babylon, separated from all that they truly loved. And it was in forgiveness that they received the gift of return, a return to the Holy City, a return to the presence of God in their lives.

In the same way He offers us a gift of return to discipleship, a return to God’s grace, where we can once again be right with God and His Church. He came not to condemn us but to save us, to forgive us. In reconciliation He offers us the gift of sacramental forgiveness, our first step on that path to return, to lifelong conversion. And like the exiles returning from Babylon, our journey should be a journey to freedom. This is the journey we are called to undertake during the holy season of Lent.

After his 40 days in the desert, Jesus begins His public ministry with the words, “Repent and believe in the Gospel” [Mk 1:15] -- for our journey is always a journey of repentance, a journey from a self-generated place of exile. And it’s never easy, for the path is littered with fears and doubts and temptations. One thing we learn is we can’t do it alone. We’re simply not courageous and fearless and faithful enough, and our crosses are just too heavy to bear. We need God to lift that burden from our shoulders and shower us with the gifts of the Spirit.

As we journey from slavery to freedom, the wounds we pick up along the way remind us that the risen Jesus held out His wounded hands to Thomas as proof of His own journey of love, a journey that transformed the world forever. It is the risen Christ whom the Father raised up from the tomb, the risen Christ who gives us hope.

Is there any better reason to be joyful today?

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