First reading: 2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23.
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 136(137).
Second reading: Ephesians 2:4-10.
Gospel: John 3:14-21.
Link to readings.
At this midpoint of Lent what the readings seem to have in common is an insistence that God’s ultimate response to human wrongdoing is salvific, rather than judgmental and destructive.
The First Reading, 2 Chron 36:14-16, 19-23, offers us the concluding reflection from the rarely cited work of the Chronicler (1-2 Chronicles). Writing after the Exile, the Chronicler attributes this national calamity, especially the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, to the exhaustion of divine patience at the infidelities of the people. But destruction is not the end of the story. In accordance with what the prophet Jeremiah had foretold, Cyrus, king of Persia, conqueror of the Babylonians who had destroyed the Temple, sees himself as deputed by the Lord to rebuild it. He invites all surviving worshippers to “go up” there for worship. The prophet’s role is chiefly interpretive. The prophet helps people understand why a calamity has come or is shortly to come upon them. Then, appealing to the nature of Israel’s God, the prophet gives hope for future rescue when suffering has run its course. The Book of Chronicles thus ends on the note that salvation and restoration, rather than punishment, will have the last word.
In the Second Reading, we enter the rather different world of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (2:4-10), with its effusive sense of the extravagance of God’s love and generosity. The letter is in fact an extended reflection on Paul’s part upon the “mystery” that lay at the heart of his vocation as Apostle to the Gentiles. The mystery is the inclusion of the nations of the world in the riches of salvation that had previously seemed reserved for Israel alone. In the saving death of Jesus, God addressed not just Israel’s sinfulness but also that of the entire world. The raising of Christ from the dead lent to the entire human race the possibility, appropriated through faith, of sharing in eternal life and so arriving at the fullness of salvation. The Gentile believers in Ephesus, along with Paul himself and all believers throughout the world, represent a kind of beachhead of this world-embracing salvation, which is entirely the undeserved gift of God.
In this respect, Paul uses of believers the very attractive expression: “we are God’s work of art” (Greek poiêma [whence “poem” in English]; the NRSV paraphrase “For we are what he has made us” is leaden). How transformative it would be if, on both an individual and a community level, believers thought of themselves as God’s “work of art”, God’s “poem in progress”—rather than some kind of junk to be either hammered into shape or discarded as useless.
The Gospel, John 3:14-21, takes us to the final part of Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus—though at this point Nicodemus and his questions have largely fallen from view and Jesus is reflecting more widely upon his own mission from the Father. The “lifting up” of the Son of Man alludes to an episode during the Exodus wandering told in Num 21:4-9. (It would in fact have been helpful to have had this passage as the First Reading!) Finding themselves in the wilderness, without proper food or water, the Israelites have begun to grumble against the Lord and against Moses, and in consequence are punished with a plague of deadly snakes. But God who sent the punishment has also, in response to the prayer of Moses, sent the remedy: the erection of a bronze figure of the snake in question. When the Israelites looked upon this figure it acted as a life-giving antidote to the poison. The Gospel passage takes this incident, where the Israelites found salvation and life by by directly confronting what was afflicting them, as a type of the coming “lifting up” of the Son of Man upon the cross. Those who will “look upon” the Crucified One with the eyes of faith, seeing him there there as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29), will find eternal life.
It is hard to think of more comforting statements than the sentences that then go on to explain this in terms of the extremity of God’s love for the world (3:16-17). While desirous that we appreciate the evil and destructiveness of sin by confronting its effects as shown upon the cross, God’s whole intent in our regard, from beginning to end, is to save and communicate eternal life through the outpouring of love that the cross also represents.
Judgment, then, is not so much something to be executed in the future. Judgment is something that believers already undergo when they honestly expose their lives to the searching but saving light that Christ, as “true Light” (1:9), brings into the world (3:18-21). It is to this kind of “judgment” that Lent invites us.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media