Sunday, March 22, 2009

Lift high the Cross!

LAETARE – The Fourth Sunday of Lent

Having the bronze serpent in my coat-of-arms is as good as any reason for not letting pass by, without comment or reflection albeit a short one, this beautiful Sunday (Cycle B) with the Gospel of St. John (3:14-21).

The Second Reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (2:4-10) offers us the key for this Sunday’s message, as joyful a message as can be imagined:

“This was to show for all ages to come, through his goodness towards us in Christ Jesus, how infinitely rich he is in grace. Because it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God; not by anything that you have done, so that nobody can claim the credit. We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to live the good life as from the beginning he had meant us to live it.”

Would it be dumbfounding to say it once and for all and let it take hold of us to the very depths of our being, that the initiative of restoring us to lost innocence was and always has been God’s in Christ? If I had to build my Lenten observance or reflection around something would it be too little to recognize myself as “God’s work of art”? I think the expression is “cooperating with God’s grace” as opposed to concentrating on hygiene or searching for the ultimate wellness seminar or success guru (if anyone still believes in such these days).

I remember the one and only time I baptized a four year old boy in the only language he really understood: German. I celebrated the baptism at a time when I was still pretty well tongue-tied in German. For him, I repeated over and over again during the liturgy the truth that through his baptism into Jesus he was now a child of God. Some weeks later his mother, not yet baptized at that point came and told me that since that Sunday she had often caught her little son at play singing to himself: “I am a child of God”. She said to me, “Father, I want to become a child of God, too”. She had experienced the gentle persuasion of joy, Laetare!, her four year old and Jesus had wrapped her in their freeing embrace! Such beautiful experiences come too seldom or maybe we just miss them for the gentleness with which they can pass us by.

Even after so many centuries, after two millennia of Gospel presence, Jesus’ words still cut to the quick: “…that though the light has come into the world men have shown they prefer darkness to the light…” Second Chronicles explains the seventy years of the Captivity of God’s People in Babylon as the required period of restitution for infidelity upon infidelity: for all those Sabbath rests which the people had stolen from God, all those Lord’s Days not observed or not returned to Him in thanksgiving for His many blessings upon the people He had chosen as His own, Exile from the Land for as long as was needed to reclaim those Sabbaths. Chronicles quotes the prophet Jeremiah to explain this suffering decreed such that the once scorned prophets might have their day before the Persian Cyrus could decree at God’s behest that the Temple was to be rebuilt and saving history could resume its course in the Land.

The “how come”, the “why” of Laetare, of our rejoicing this Sunday is all too clear: “Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life.” “The Son must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert…” The challenge is the same as that facing the people in the desert doomed to death by the serpents’ venom, by their deadly bites. We must lift our gaze to the Son lifted up on the Cross for our salvation. No amount of dietary restrictions, pills, latex, Himalayan berries or Egyptian cotton, deep breathing or positive thinking is to satisfy us if we would indeed leave the darkness which covers the people, who continue to sit in the shadow of death. Upon the Cross with Christ we are caught up to eternal life. Just as was the case with the bronze serpent, what may seem to human perception to be futile or even death dealing is rather what gives life. By His Wounds we are healed.

A lot of journalists, commentators, self-assured political figures and supposedly successful or self-made types have been hurling abuse at our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI especially over the last coupe of months. Other people have been verbally carving up his curia into small pieces. These people all have advice to give on how the Pope could “do it better”. Personally, I think he and Jesus are doing a great job at world-class level of what my little four year old German boy with Jesus did for his mother in freedom. How else do you give the hope that there is such a thing as joy, lasting joy? Laetare!

“Redemption is offered to us in the sense that we have been given hope, trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present: the present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey.” (Spe salvi, 1.).

O let my tongue cleave to my mouth if I remember you not!

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