Fr. Roger J. Landry
Church of the Holy Family, New York, NY
Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B (Laetare Sunday)
March 15, 2015
2 Chron 36:14-17.19-23, Ps 137, Eph 2:4-10, Jn 3:14-21
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
Today, at about the midpoint of Lent, the Church celebrates Laetare Sunday, a title taken from the first word of today’s entrance antiphon: “Laetare, Ierusalem”: “Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her. Be joyful, all who were in mourning: exult and be satisfied at her consoling breast.” That’s a paraphrase from what God had the Prophet Isaiah announce (Is 66:10-11) to the Jews who were captive in Babylon, where, as we heard in today’s Responsorial Psalm, they used to sit by the streams and weep, where they had hung up their harps and were too saddened to sing because they were remembering all that they had squandered because of their sins. Today’s reading from the Second Book of Chronicles describes those sins, how everyone, from princes, to priests, to people had “added infidelity to infidelity,” imitating the abominations of pagan nations, polluting the Lord’s temple with their sins, mocking the prophets God had sent to them and refusing to hear God’s call to conversion. But God didn’t stop loving them. Out of love, he permitted the Babylonian captivity as the last chance to bring them to conversion, a redemption that, as we hear at the end of today’s first reading, God raised up Cyrus, king of Persia, to help bring about.
The liberation of the Jews from the Babylonians, which led Isaiah to prophecy “Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her,” is just a small sign of the far greater liberation and joy that Jesus was going to bring into the world, a liberation from the exile and alienation caused by sin, and a freedom from the captivity to which sin leads, death. That’s a message that’s supposed to make not just Jerusalem rejoice, but New York, and Rome, and every city. That joy is because of the unfathomable love of God that would stop at nothing to redeem us. The Church has us ponder that love in today’s Gospel, when St. John tells us, “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.” St. John adds, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,” to render to us strict justice on account of our sins, “but so that the world might be saved through him.” While the human race was in a far worse situation than the Jews in Babylon, God himself sent someone greater than the King of Persia to set us free. He sent his own Son. St. Paul would write to the Romans that if God “did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how would he not also give us everything else besides?” That led St. Paul to conclude, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” When God the Father had a choice to allow us to die in eternal exile or allow his Son to take our place on death row and be brutally mocked and crucified, he loved us in some sense even more than his Son. He chose to save our life by allowing his Son to give his. This indescribable love is an incredible cause for joy! That love of God that would pull out all the stops in order to save us is the root of all Christian joy.
But it’s important for us not to hear this message in a softened and sentimentalized way. It’s great that so many plaster “John 3:16” on football stadiums around the country proclaiming our joy that God loves the world and us so much, but at the same time, sometimes many don’t find a contradiction when during those same football games, some players are stomping with their cleats on their adversaries and cursing in huddles as fans are getting plastered in the stands watching scantily clad cheerleaders stoke their concupiscence like Herod Antipas and his drunken courtiers watched his step-daughter dance. For us to enter into the joy that comes from Christ’s love, we need to grasp what it cost, and what response it demands.
Christ as the fulfillment of the bronze serpent
Jesus describes for Nicodemus today both the price tag he needs to pay and we need to pay: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him might have eternal life.” That was an allusion first to the work of the ancient serpent, who got Adam and Eve in the Garden to distrust God, sin, and essentially choose death over life. But then it pointed to what God had allowed to happen to the Jews in the desert who were complaining about what they had to eat in the desert, distrusting anew in the One who had just saved them from Pharaoh. He allowed saraph serpents to slither among them and bite them with poisonous venom (Num 21). The antidote God prescribed to save them was to have Moses make a bronze serpent and mount it on a staff, and those who looked on that serpent — a reminder of the sins that had infected them with a fatal bodily and spiritual venom — they would be saved. Jesus said that he on the Cross would become like that elevated bronze serpent. He would suck the poison of sin out of our wounds and take it with him to Calvary. And we would need to look at him on the Cross to see, first, just what the gravity of our sins had cause, your sins, mine everyone’s; second, the fact that we can’t save ourselves from our sins by our own efforts; and, third, the great love of God who would take on those sins and the death to which they inexorably lead in order to provide us the saving antitoxin.
But the type of glance we need to give to Jesus lifted up on the Cross must not remain merely visual. To be saved we need to look with the eyes of faith, a faith that has to become consequential in a way of life. That’s what St. John expresses immediately after the consoling words about the depth of God’s love. “Whoever believes” in Jesus, he tells us, “will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned.” He forcefully reminds us that just like those in Jerusalem prior to the exile refused to listen to the prophets, so we can refuse to listen to Jesus, look upon him with the eyes of grateful faith, and receive his free gift of salvation. “This is the verdict,” St. John states, “that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light. … But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.” To look on Jesus lifted up on the Cross with the eyes of faith means to enter into the logic of the Cross. It means to heed his words to deny ourselves, pick up our Cross each day and follow him, leaving the darkness of sin behind and entering with him into the light.
The Richness of God’s mercy
To look at the Cross with the light of faith means to see in the Cross the realization that God’s love is merciful and that God’s merciful love isn’t cheap. Our salvation has been purchased with the price of Jesus’ own death when we were self-alienated from him. He didn’t die for us because we deserved it; we didn’t deserve it, but loved us with mercy and died for us anyway. St. Paul focuses on this in today’s second reading. “God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ … [and] raised us up with him.”
Pope Francis commented on this merciful love of God seen on the Cross in his Angelus meditation this morning in St. Peter’s Square. “Never forget this, [God] is rich in mercy.… The Cross of Christ is the supreme proof of the Love of God for us: Jesus has loved us ‘until the end’ (Jn. 13:1), meaning not only at the final moment of his earthly life, but until the extreme limit of love. If in creation the Father has given us the proof of his great love by giving us life, in the passion of His Son He has given us the sum of all proofs: He has come to suffer and die for us. And this love that is so great is the mercy of God, because He loves us, He forgives us. With his mercy, God forgives all and God always forgives.”
The whole purpose of the Lenten season is to bring us to unite ourselves with Christ on the Cross, to allow God who is rich in mercy to make us rich in mercy, by bringing us to recognize how much we need that mercy, to come to receive it and then to lead us to share it lavishly with others. And doing all three is essential to our entering into the joy that God wants to give us. The ultimate source of our joy is God’s incredible love for us, and since God’s love is merciful, if we’re going to experience the fullness of Christian joy, it will happen only through receiving and sharing God’s mercy. “Heaven rejoices more,” Jesus told us, “over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people in no need of repentance.” Heaven’s greatest joy, God’s greatest joy, is saving us through his forgiveness; if we wish to enter into that greatest joy of all, we need to pass through the door of mercy and bring many others through that same door.
Jesus, who came so that his joy might be in us and our joy might be complete, sought to have us receive that merciful love and, like him, come to enflesh that merciful love. He gave us the parable of the Prodigal Son, he told us of the lost sheep and lost coin, he forgave the sinful woman in Simon the Pharisee’s house, the paralyzed man on the stretcher, the woman caught in adultery, St. Peter, St. Paul and so many others. He told us that the path to happiness involves both receiving and giving this mercy, stressing in the beatitudes, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy,” calling us to be “merciful as [his] Father in heaven is merciful” and reminding us on two different occasions that unless we forgive others their sins, neither will our heavenly Father forgive us ours. The reason the Father won’t forgive us is not because he’s punishing us out of anger but because if we’re not merciful to others, our heart is impenetrably hardened to receive God’s mercy. We can’t enter into Jesus’ joy in this world or the next without this dual experience of God’s loving forgiveness, receiving it and paying it forward.
Pope Francis and Mercy
That has been the great message of Pope Francis since he was elected two years ago this past Friday.
His great joy itself flows from his own experience of God’s mercy. He discerned his own priestly calling when he went to confession as a 16-year-old boy, that in the very act of God’s giving his mercy to him he was also calling him to be an instrument of that mercy to the world.
His papal motto, Miserando atque Eligendo — taken from St. Bede’s description of Jesus’ calling of the sinful tax collector St. Matthew to be an apostle, a feast that is celebrated on the very day young Jorge Bergoglio received his vocation — he has always applied to himself, that he was called in the very experience of being forgiven.
When Pope Francis was asked in the Sistine Chapel two years and two days ago whether he would accept the election as the successor of St. Peter, he didn’t reply “Accepto” or “Non Accepto,” as the rite prescribes. Instead he replied, “Peccator sum, sed super misericordia et infinita patientia Domini nostri Jesu Christi confisus et in spiritu penitentiae accepto.” “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and in a spirit of penance I accept.” When he was asked in an interview, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?,” he responded, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner…[but] I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon” with love.
His papacy has been all about getting us to trust unceasingly in that merciful and restorative love of the Lord. In his first Angelus meditation after his election, he said, “The Lord never tires of forgiving: never! It is we who tire of asking his forgiveness. Let us ask for the grace not to tire of asking forgiveness, because he never tires of forgiving.”
Just two days ago on his papal anniversary he showed and called the world anew to this mercy, asking the priests of the world to have 24 hours of mercy hearing confessions, going to confession himself in St. Peter’s Basilica and then hearing the confessions of the multitude assembled to receive that grace. During his homily at that prayer service, he announced that he was declaring a Jubilee of Mercy, beginning December 8 this year, so that we might all become wealthy in God’s mercy and abundantly spend that most needed gift in the world. We don’t have to wait until December 8, however, to experience it. We’re meant to enter into that mystery now. And when we do, we will taste a little of the joy of heaven, which rejoices more over one repentant sinner than the great joy it receives from all people living justly. We will feel the depth of the love of God who doesn’t stop loving us when we sin, but whose love we often don’t experience in our sins because by our sins we voluntarily separate ourselves from that love. In the Sacrament of his Mercy, we experience the joy of having our souls returned back to their baptismal beauty. Let’s never tire of seeing ourselves, with Pope Francis, as sinners on whom the Lord, rich in mercy, looks with love. Let us never tire of asking for the love he tires of giving.
The Source and Summit of Mercy
And all of what we’ve been talking about today, just like every other central act of our faith, finds its source and summit on the altar, in the person of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. He is mercy incarnate and gives us this sacrifice, as we pray at the consecration of the Precious Blood, for the forgiveness of sins. He makes it possible for us to enter into communion with his loving mercy. It’s here we behold him lifted up not as a bronze serpent but as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. God so loved the world so much that he not only gave us his Son, but God the Father shows that love even more by giving us his Son every day on the altar and making his Son’s forgiveness available to us every day in the Sacrament of Penance. Let us look on Christ today, lifted up on the Cross, lifted up in the host, and say, with Saint John and all the members of the Church, “We have come to know and to believe in the love God us for us!” (1 John 4:10). We have, indeed, come to trust in him and in his mercy! We have come to believe in and live in his light. Laetare, Jerusalem! Indeed, Rejoice, New York! God’s mercy is real and God loves us so much that he never ceases to share that gift with us!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 2 CHR 36:14-16, 19-23
added infidelity to infidelity,
practicing all the abominations of the nations
and polluting the LORD’s temple
which he had consecrated in Jerusalem.Early and often did the LORD, the God of their fathers,
send his messengers to them,
for he had compassion on his people and his dwelling place.
But they mocked the messengers of God,
despised his warnings, and scoffed at his prophets,
until the anger of the LORD against his people was so inflamed
that there was no remedy.
Their enemies burnt the house of God,
tore down the walls of Jerusalem,
set all its palaces afire,
and destroyed all its precious objects.
Those who escaped the sword were carried captive to Babylon,
where they became servants of the king of the Chaldeans and his sons
until the kingdom of the Persians came to power.
All this was to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah:
“Until the land has retrieved its lost sabbaths,
during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest
while seventy years are fulfilled.”In the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia,
in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah,
the LORD inspired King Cyrus of Persia
to issue this proclamation throughout his kingdom,
both by word of mouth and in writing:
“Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia:
All the kingdoms of the earth
the LORD, the God of heaven, has given to me,
and he has also charged me to build him a house
in Jerusalem, which is in Judah.
Whoever, therefore, among you belongs to any part of his people,
let him go up, and may his God be with him!”
Responsorial Psalm PS 137:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6
By the streams of Babylon
we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the aspens of that land
we hung up our harps.
R. Let my tongue be silenced, if I ever forget you!
For there our captors asked of us
the lyrics of our songs,
And our despoilers urged us to be joyous:
“Sing for us the songs of Zion!”
R. Let my tongue be silenced, if I ever forget you!
How could we sing a song of the LORD
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand be forgotten!
R. Let my tongue be silenced, if I ever forget you!
May my tongue cleave to my palate
if I remember you not,
If I place not Jerusalem
ahead of my joy.
R. Let my tongue be silenced, if I ever forget you!
Reading 2 EPH 2:4-10
God, who is rich in mercy,
because of the great love he had for us,
even when we were dead in our transgressions,
brought us to life with Christ — by grace you have been saved —,
raised us up with him,
and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus,
that in the ages to come
He might show the immeasurable riches of his grace
in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
For by grace you have been saved through faith,
and this is not from you; it is the gift of God;
it is not from works, so no one may boast.
For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works
that God has prepared in advance,
that we should live in them.
Verse Before The Gospel JN 3:16
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so everyone who believes in him might have eternal life.
Gospel JN 3:14-21
Jesus said to Nicodemus:
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
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.
Whoever believes in him will not be condemned,
but whoever does not believe has already been condemned,
because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
And this is the verdict,
that the light came into the world,
but people preferred darkness to light,
because their works were evil.
For everyone who does wicked things hates the light
and does not come toward the light,
so that his works might not be exposed.
But whoever lives the truth comes to the light,
so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.