March 16, 2012

Fourth Sunday in Lent / Msgr. Owen F. Campion

The Sunday Readings

Msgr. Owen CampionThe Second Book of Chronicles provides this Lenten weekend with its first reading.

Chronicles was written about 1,000 years before Jesus. The identity of its author is unknown. As the title of this book implies, its purpose is to record the history of God’s people, but the most important aspect of their history always was religious.

A constant refrain and source of grief among the prophets and the devout of ancient Israel was the sinfulness of the people and most particularly that of the kings.

God caused no distress or hardship. Rather, by disobeying God the people themselves upset the order of life and brought trouble upon themselves.

This reading insists that God again and again has sent messengers to call the people to faithfulness. Inevitably, these messengers were met with rebuke.

As an example of all this, Babylonia overtook the Holy Land because sin had weakened the Hebrew kingdoms. The conquerors took many Hebrews to Babylon, where the Hebrews’ lives were miserable.

A pagan king, Cyrus, of Persia, freed these sad people when he overcame Babylon. The devout saw Cyrus as an instrument of God’s mercy.

St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians furnishes the second reading.

It teaches critical facts about God, the source of unending mercy. Salvation is God’s merciful gift. We do not deserve it. God lavishly extends it to us, however, as an expression of eternal, divine love.

St. John’s Gospel gives this Liturgy of the Word its final reading.

In this reading, Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus, a prominent and religious Jew from Jerusalem.

The Lord refers to an event that occurred during the Exodus when Moses lifted high a serpent. All who looked upon this serpent were rescued from death.

Serpents were important in ancient iconography, although more important among pagans than among Jews. Serpents symbolized eternal life because they shed their hides and seemingly were reborn to new lives.

Jesus predicts being lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent. All the people who would look upon Jesus would have everlasting life.

Even as bearer of life, Jesus was not a conqueror. People must freely choose to follow Jesus by renouncing their own sin. Still, renouncing sin is worth it. Life is the consequence.

This is important. God “so loved the world that he gave his only son” (Jn 3:16). God desires life for us and therefore sent Jesus to lead us to life even if on occasion we have preferred darkness.

Reflection

This weekend often is called “Laetare Sunday,” taking its name from the Latin word “laetare,” which means “to rejoice.” This is the first word of the Entrance Antiphon, which in the Roman Rite for centuries was solely in Latin.

In the liturgies of this weekend, priests have the option of wearing pink or, to be precise, rose vestments. Rose is not the toning down of a stricter purple. Rather, it is the subdued purple brightened by the golden light of the Resurrection. Easter lies just a few weeks ahead.

The Church calls us to rejoice, even if we are in the fourth week of Lent, the season of austerity and penance.

We rejoice because—although life can be hard and dark at times—in Christ we have hope and peace.

The Lord won life and peace for us on the cross. The Gospel reading alludes to the Crucifixion.

Beyond Calvary, Jesus, victorious over death, stands before us, as the “Light of the World.”

For humanity, the blessed fact is that people who turn only to Jesus, and in Jesus are obedient to God, will share in the wondrous victory that Jesus won over death and sin for us.

We can share in this victory because God has given us the Lord. God gave us Jesus so that we might live. God loves us with an everlasting love. It is a productive, active and forthcoming love. †

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