Scripture and the Liturgy

Laetare Sunday!

Welcome to Laetare Sunday!  This Sunday marks the halfway point of Lent, but actually we are more than halfway through—there is just one more Sunday of Lent proper and then we enter into Holy Week.  Doesn’t time fly?  How are your Lenten practices going?  Are you sticking to your chosen acts of penance and mortification?  Maintaining your resolutions for prayer and meditation?  Now is a good day to do an examination of conscience and renew our resolutions for the rest of Lent!

As we turn to the Readings for this Sunday, it’s important to remember that the First Readings for Lent in Year B are cycling through some high points of salvation history—a review as we prepare for Easter.  So we’ve had (1) the creation covenant renewed with Noah, the (2) covenant with Abraham, (3) the covenant at Sinai through Moses, and now this week, we are reviewing (4) Israel’s failure to keep the Sinai covenant, and thus the subsequent exile of Israel to Babylon.  After all, the exile was prophesied as the consequence of failing to keep the Sinai covenant: see Lev 26:33-39 and Deut 28:64-65.  Next week we will read from Jeremiah the prophecy of the New Covenant (Jer 31:31-34), and then celebrate its inauguration from Passion Sunday to Easter!

Reading 1 2 Chr 36:14-16, 19-23

In those days, all the princes of Judah, the priests, and the people
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!”

The reading from 2 Chronicles 36 mentions specifically the exile as a result of failure to keep the Sabbath:

“Until the land has retrieved its lost sabbaths,
during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest
while seventy years are fulfilled.”

This is not merely the Sabbath day, but specifically the Sabbath Year (see Exod 23:10-13; Deut 15, Lev 25) during which even the land was supposed to rest.  The Sabbath concept was not restricted to a weekly observance, but was a system of rest and honoring God that was written into the Israelite liturgical calendar on multiple levels (again, see Lev 23 and 25).  The Sabbath was the “sign” of the covenant in a particular way (see Exod 31:16-17).  Profanation of the Sabbath, then, was a particularly grave form of breaking the covenant whose fundamental law we heard proclaimed last week.

Christ is our Sabbath.  He comes to bring the eschatological Sabbath Year (the “year of the Lord’s favor”, see Luke 4:19) as Isa 61:1-2 prophesied.  He came to bring forgiveness “seventy times seven”—a perfect Sabbatical number, symbolizing the perfection of rest with God.

2.  The connection of the Responsorial Psalm is obvious:

Responsorial Psalm  Ps 137:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6:

R. (6ab) Let my tongue be silenced, if I ever forget you!
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!

Having read of the exile of Israel, we now sing one of the great psalms lamenting the exile.  Christians need to remember that, while in this earthly life, we are still in a kind of exile: may we never forget our home, Jerusalem, and yet our citizenship is in the Jerusalem above, not here below (Gal 4:26): “And after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of they womb, Jesus …”

3.  The Second Reading emphasizes that all salvation is the mercy and grace of God, not our effort:

Reading 2 Eph 2:4-10:

Brothers and sisters:
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.

There is an analogy here between the experience of Israel and the experience of each one of us personally.  For Israel, their exile was a national death—their history was over and done (see Ezek 37).  Yet God, not because of any goodness of their own—they didn’t even repent in exile! (see Daniel 9:13)—resurrected the people of Israel and returned them to their land, through mercy expressed by Cyrus of Persia.

In the same way, though there is nothing deserving on our part, we receive grace through Christ to live a new life, indeed, to participate in eternal life even now, here below.  Even now, in a mystical reality, we have been lifted up to the Jerusalem which is above, where Christ sits enthroned on the throne of David (Ps 122:5).  This does not mean we are passive: God has prepared good works for us to do.  These are also a part of our salvation, which is not simply a matter of “easy-believism.”

4.  Our Gospel begins with an example from Israel’s history:

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.

The incident of the raising of the serpent has similarities to the exile mentioned in the First Reading.  Israel was virtually in a state of death: the people were in danger of being destroyed by a plague of snakes.  Moses raised the bronze serpent on the pole, and all who looked to it were restored to life.  So it was an account of national resurrection.

In what follows, there is a personal application to us.  Just as Israel was restored to life by gazing on the serpent lifted up, we may be restored to eternal life by gazing on Christ. 

The following verses in John 3 constitute one of the clearest and most beautiful statements of the Gospel to be found in the New Testament.  It’s hard to treat adequately, but let’s isolate one theme: the theme of light:

“But whoever lives the truth comes to the light,
so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.”

In Lent, we are preparing for Baptism (for those in RCIA) and the rest of us are preparing for the renewal of our Baptismal commitment.  Let’s remember that Baptism is not merely the sacrament of water but of light.  I am convinced this baptismal catechesis of “light” is behind the narrative of the healing of the man born blind in John 9, who sees the light after washing in the water. The Fathers called baptism “the enlightenment.”  As we journey toward Easter, let’s make every effort to “expose our works” to the mercy of God in the confessional, and show proper penitence by our Lenten mortifications, so that we will not be ashamed to walk toward “the light” bestowed through Baptism at the Easter Liturgy.

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