Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, 11 March 2018:
2 Chronicles 36:14-23; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21
The Son of Man must be lifted up, as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert.
We are preparing now to celebrate, in only three weeks time, the lifting up of Christ. On Good Friday we will look at him lifted up on the Cross. Then on Easter Day we will contemplate him lifted up into heaven: risen, ascended, glorified; sitting now forever in victory at the right hand of his Father. Through our celebration of Easter, once again, we will affirm, strengthen, nourish our faith in Jesus, and in the saving power of his death and resurrection.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that everyone who believes in him may not be lost, but may have eternal life.
In Christ’s Cross we see God’s love lifted up, for all to see. We see there our reconciliation lifted up; the price of our redemption lifted up; the source of all our hope, lifted up. In Christ’s Cross we see manifested God’s eternal will to save, and also our radical need for his salvation.
Jesus was lifted up on the Cross as an object of horror; lifted up in public punishment; lifted up to endure maximum pain, humiliation, degradation, then finally ignominious death. Yet, for us who believe, precisely here we find never ending consolation, inspiration, hope. Externally, Christ’s lifting up on the Cross was one more horrible, sordid, wretched event, lost and buried in the remote past. But to the eyes of faith, God here supremely revealed himself, and his love. Christ’s Cross has universal significance, touching all of time and all of space. Through it, the whole world has in principle been saved. So for us, Christ’s Cross is not only the central reference point of all history; but also of our own life; and of every moment of every day.
What was Jesus doing there on the Cross? He was inflicting a definitive defeat on the devil, and on the power of sin. Here Jesus, God’s only Son, reached into the furthest depths of human weakness, misery, suffering, abandonment, mortality. Here, Jesus took upon himself the summary of all human sin. And as a result of that, no one can ever again be justified in crying out: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? The Cross seems to be, and truly is, the place of man’s final rejection of God; the place of darkness, and of death. Yet from it pours out divine life, divine light, divine love. In Pauline terms: here we seem to see only folly and weakness; yet in reality, here supremely is manifested God’s wisdom and power.
But we find it so hard to understand! Sometimes we cry out in bafflement: Why this way, Lord? Why did God not simply, as it were, wave his hand, and decree an end to sin with all its consequences, then simply confer universal salvation? We glimpse at least part of an answer as we gaze in humble adoration at Christ’s Cross. Divine love wants more and better than that for us. Divine, Trinitarian love can only be expressed through total self gift. And Divine love cannot be satisfied with coercion. God wants our free and willing cooperation. We express that through our act of faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Today’s Old Testament reading from the end of 2 Chronicles gives us a necessary background to today’s Gospel proclamation. The Chronicler summarises for us a history of sinful Israel, which is a symbol of all our histories. All of us are born, as it were, in Babylon, exiled from our true home, separated from God, under the power of demons, with God’s wrath for our inheritance (Eph 2:3). But in his mercy God continually reaches out to us, with ever-repeated offers of salvation. The memorable opening words of the Letter to the Hebrews bring this story to its final outcome: At many times in the past, and by various ways, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets. But in these last days he has spoken to us through his Son.
Today’s second reading from Ephesians wonderfully complements the Gospel. As if in ecstasy St. Paul cries out: How rich is God in mercy! With what an excess of love he loved us! (Eph 2:4, Mgr. Knox trans.) With St. John, Paul gazes at Christ on the Cross, and then through that to the resurrection. So, Paul cries, with Christ we too are lifted up; we are brought to life again from the dead with him, raised up into heaven with him; lifted up with him into eternal glory. Yes: the consequences of what God has done for us in Christ are very great; the reward we await in him is very great; and all of it is utterly free; gratuitous gift; given to us not because we are good, but because God is. And its only condition is faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.
The season of lent is given to help us open ourselves to these tremendous truths. Lent offers us the space we need to receive more of what we are given; and to prove by our actions that this means everything to us; that it is truly our life. Lent also invites us to examine our consciences, and to put ourselves on guard. Because we Christians can at any time step back into the darkness, if we want. We can close our hearts to the power, the invitation of Christ’s Cross. Refusing God’s grace, God’s call, we can sink gently back into our own narrow and selfish pride. May God preserve us from that! On the contrary, Lent urges us to keep moving forward. We are never to be content with past achievements. There is always more: more grace, more gift, more transformation, more holiness, more love: deeper and deeper union with Jesus.
And now we have the holy Eucharist. Here, every time, the words of St. John become for us actual, and immediate, and present reality. Here, God loves us so much that he offers us the gift of his only Son. In the Eucharist we express our faith in Jesus, and we already participate in the eternal life he came to give. Through this Mass, then, let us ask the grace of keeping what remains of lent with fervour: so that we may celebrate the coming Paschal Mystery with ever deepened faith and love.