Friday, August 18, 2006

Year B 4th Sunday of Lent

Readings: 2 Chron 36,14-16; Ps 137,1-6; Eph 2,4-10; Jn 3,14-21

Today’s readings tell us of the two great Biblical attributes of God: justice and mercy. Superficially these attributes may seem to be opposites; they are not. Scripture demonstrates time and again that they exist in a kind of creative tension. The good news is that, in the end, God’s mercy wins out. In Christ Jesus, St. Paul tells us in our second reading, God’s mercy definitively prevails. “For by grace [we] have been saved through faith . . . it is the gift of God, it is not from works, so no one may boast” (Eph 2,8-9). As we have been recently reminded, Deus Caritas Est- God is Love (1 Jn 4,8) . It is out of love that “he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn 3,16).

Our first reading from Chronicles demonstrates this creative tension. In this passage the chronicler tells us that God gave his people the chance to remain in the Promised Land, but they ignored God and ended up in exile. One of the main points of this story is quite clear, especially in the context of today’s readings, and it is disturbing: God offers us each of us the opportunity to live in the promised land of His eternal kingdom. If we ignore this invitation, if we refuse the gift freely offered, we, too, face exile. The subject of hell and everlasting punishment is one that in our day we tend to avoid. But it is the clear testimony of scripture and the constant teaching of the Church that hell is real and its punishments eternal. Jesus, in today’s Gospel, tells us those who refuse to believe in him have “already been condemned” (Jn 3,18) . Of course, even in our passage from Chronicles, God’s mercy prevails. The Persians conquer the Chaldeans and Cyrus, king of Persia, allows the Israelites to return to Jerusalem, and orders them to build a temple.

Jesus’ reference to Moses lifting “up the serpent in the desert” reveals to us the richness of God’s mercy (Eph 2,4). Jesus’ alludes to the event, which took place during Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness (which serves as a major reference point for our Lenten journey). The Israelites were set upon by poisonous serpents. As people were bitten by the serpents and began to die, the Lord told Moses to put a bronze serpent on a pole, to hold the pole up in the sight of all the people "and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live." Despite the ease of this remedy, there were some who still perished because they would not even look (Num 21,6-9) . Again, the parallel is obvious. It is made even plainer when Jesus tells us we are saved when we look to him lifted on the Cross. Such a turn does not yet even require faith, only hope. Of course, both faith and hope are theological virtues and, as such, are gifts from God.

In our other readings, Jesus and Paul both approach the contentious issue of the relationship between faith and works. One important point to make up-front is that works do not earn us God’s favor. Rather, good works are evidence that we have received the gift freely offered us by our loving Father. Put in a more pithily, “faith without works is like a song you can’t sing” (Screen Door by Rich Mullins).

Good works, therefore, are thanksgiving- which is the meaning of eucharist- for what God has given us in Christ. It is to offer eucharist that we are gathered here as people who have come to believe that Jesus Christ was sent “into the world not to condemn it, but to save it” (Jn 3,17) . Our becoming Christ-like is initiated and brought to completion by God, but it requires our cooperation, our openness, our deep desire to be like Jesus. Because God’s love for us is true, God does not force us to return His love. To do so would be to violate the freedom that is constitutive of our human dignity. Put simply, God loves us and leaves the decision to return His love up to us.

It is often said and easily observed that actions speak louder than words. God shows His love for us in concrete acts, like the Incarnation, which we contemplate in light of yesterday’s celebration of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel told Mary she was to bear the Son of God. The divine wellspring of the Incarnation “flows through a privileged channel: the Virgin Mary . . . The angel’s proclamation was addressed to her; she accepted it, and when she responded from the depths of her heart: ‘Here I am . . . let it be done to me according to your word’ (Lk 1:38) , the eternal Word began to exist as a human being in time” (Homily of Pope Benedict XVI, 25 March 2006). In this, as in all things, Mary humbly models for us the appropriate response of gratitude, which finds its completion in concrete acts of love for neighbor, just as Mary’s humble submission to God’s initiative- agreeing to be an unwed mother in a society that punished unchaste behavior with death- gained for us our Savior.

Mary’s modeling reminds us that too often we think that if we just state the same truth over and over again, eventually others will believe it. But words lose their effectiveness after a time. Hence, it is not enough to tell people “Believe in Jesus and you will be saved,” especially if they have no experience of what that means. Let us resolve, therefore, that in our encounters with other people this week, to find ways to show through our actions and attitudes that we believe in God’s abiding love for the world and everyone in it. In this way we see that even our good works, insofar as they flow from faith, are gifts of God.

The creative tension between God’s justice and mercy was summarized well by Franciscan Fr. Raniero Cantalmessa, preacher of the papal household, when speaking recently in New Orleans to victims of Hurricane Katrina: “A disaster like this is not a punishment but a warning for everybody that we should be vigilant and should not put all our trust in what can be taken away in one day, if not by the flood of water, then by the flood of time.” “Time passes,” observes Cantalmessa, “and will take everything” (Intermountain Catholic, Vol. 68 No. 11, pg. 16).
My dear sisters and brothers let us resolve to make Jesus Christ present in all we do and say. Let us respond to God’s love by loving our neighbor. It is only in this way that we become, individually and collectively, like our Blessed Mother, a Eucharist.

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