“The Son of Man indeed goes, as it is written of him…” The gospels tell us in many places that Jesus willingly laid down his life. This was the mission the Father gave him, and this was the mission he had taken up on this earth. In these final days of Holy Week, Jesus lives up to the mission he has freely taken up. Isaiah says of him: “And I have not rebelled, have not turned back. I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; My face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.” There would have been precious little grace had it happened any other way. “For your sake I bear insult,” the Psalmist says, “and shame covers my face.” In what way are we being called to willingly take up our cross today?
Today’s Gospel: John 3:14-21
The only thing God wants to do is to forgive sinners. Period. That’s what our Gospel reading tells us very plainly today: “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.” And so, in Jesus Christ, we have absolutely everything that we need for the forgiveness of sins, except one thing. In Jesus Christ, we have our God who became man. We have in Christ the Saving Sacrifice, his life poured out on us to take away the penalty of our sins and nullify the sting of our death. Not only that, but Jesus Christ strengthens us with the gift of his Holy Spirit, who enlivens in us the desire to be close to our God and to put our sins behind us. That Holy Spirit gives us the grace not just to know and confess our sins, but also the grace to avoid the sin ahead of us. In Christ, the way to forgiveness is open. We have all we need – except one thing.
And that one thing is the thing that must come from within us, namely, repentance. Because once we repent of our sins, turn away from them, and confess them, we can then accept God’s grace and mercy, and become a new people, marked by faith hope and love. But repentance is a choice that’s up to us; it’s a habit we have to develop, because it’s not a habit that we see demonstrated much in our world. Our world would rather take mistakes and put a positive “spin” on them so everyone saves face. But that’s not repentance. Our world would rather find someone else to blame for the problems we encounter, so that we can be righteously indignant and accept our own status as victims. But that’s not repentance. Our world would rather encounter an issue by throwing at it money, human resources, military intervention, lawsuits or legislation. But that’s not repentance.
The problem, as our Gospel tells us this evening, is that the world prefers the darkness of sin and ignorance and death over the glorious light of God’s grace and forgiveness, and mercy. It’s insanity, but that’s the sad truth of our world.
So, quite frankly, if we are ever going to learn the habit of repentance, we are going to have to look elsewhere than the evening news. World leaders are no help at all, and even if the media were to see an example of repentance, I’m not sure they’d give it much play. So where are we going to get the inspiration to live as a repentant people? These Lenten days, we might look at the wayward son’s interaction with the Prodigal Father, or perhaps the woman at the well who left her jug behind to live the new life. We might look at the woman caught in adultery or even at the “good thief” crucified with Jesus. All of these got the idea and turned from their sin toward their God and received life in return. This is the habit of repentance that we have been called to develop in ourselves.
Brothers and sisters, sin enslaves us and makes exiles out of us. Sin takes us out of the community and puts us off on our own, in a very empty place. That exile might look something like this:
- We ignore the needs of the poor and exile ourselves from the full community;
- We judge others and thus draw a dividing line between ourselves and those we judge;
- We lie and are no longer trusted by others;
- We refuse to forgive, and are trapped in the past, not willing to respond to the present;
- We cheat, steal and abuse the rights of others and thus offend the right order of the community;
- We act violently in words and actions and thus perpetuate forces that splinter and violate the human community;
- We withdraw from their church and diminish the community’s ability to witness to God and serve others.
The exile of sin is heartbreaking, but it doesn’t have to be that way for us. The Liturgy of the Word throughout the Lenten season has been showing us the way back. We have the wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit to inspire us with desire for communion with our God. We have the grace and mercy poured out on us through the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And we have the grace to do that one thing that’s missing; to develop that habit that makes us one with our God – that habit of repentance that brings us back no matter how far we have wandered or how many times we have turned away. Our God can still reach us in exile and he can still bring us back to the community, if we will but let him. The only thing our God wants to do is to forgive sinners. Not just once, not twice, but as many times as we fall and as often as we turn away – so long as we repent and turn back to him.
And that’s why we’re here tonight. God is aching to pour out on us the grace of his forgiveness and to bring us to his peace beyond all of our understanding, and we have chosen to come and receive it. We have chosen to be a people marked by faith, hope and love. We long to develop that habit of repentance which allows us to receive the new life God has always wanted for us. The only thing God wants to do is to forgive sinners. So let us now as a community of faith examine our conscience and repent of our sins.
Today’s Gospel reading contains four of the most chilling words in all of holy Scripture: “And it was night.” Those narrative words come just after Judas takes the morsel and leaves the gathering. But the Beloved Disciple didn’t include those words to tell us the time of day. In John’s Gospel, there is an overriding theme of light and darkness. The light and darkness, of course, refer to the evil of the world as opposed to the light of Christ.
That John tells us it was night meant that this was the hour of darkness, the hour when evil would come to an apparent climax. This is the time when all of the sins of the world have converged upon Jesus Christ and he will take them to the Cross. The darkness of all of the sins of the world have made it a very dark night indeed.
But we know the end of the story. This hour of darkness will certainly see Jesus die for our sins. But the climax of evil will be nothing compared to the outpouring of grace. The darkness of evil is always overcome by the light of Christ. Always. But for now, it is night.
In these Holy days, we see the darkness that our Savior had to endure for our salvation. May we find courage in the way he triumphed over this fearful night.
Today, and throughout this Holy Week, we have in our Liturgy a stark reminder that the hope that we have in the Resurrection was purchased at a great price. Our world today would prefer to ignore the cross. And with good reason. Because the cross is embarrassing. Until Christianity, no religion worth its salt would base itself on a God who suffered an ignoble death that was reserved for the most obstinate of criminals. And even now, you know, we’d rather not dwell on that kind of pain, would we? We live in an age where there is a pill for every minor affliction and a treatment for every discomfort. In and of itself, this is not a bad thing, but then we can often take it farther and find ways to mask any pain, physical or psychological, that comes our way, and this is not healthy.
The Cross is an in-your-face reminder that pain is part and parcel of our life of salvation. Jesus did not come to take away our pain, he came to redeem it. Not only that, he came to take it on himself. Far from being embarrassed by our sin and pain, Jesus took it to the cross, redeeming our brokenness, and leaving us an everlasting promise that there is no pain too great for our God to bear and there is no way we can ever fall so far that our God can’t reach us. We may think our pain and our sin is embarrassing, but Jesus left none of that behind on the way to the cross. He took our every hurt, our every pain, our every sin, our every shame, our every resentment, our every emptiness, and left them all there at the foot of the cross.
And so today’s Liturgy brings us to the place to which we have been journeying this Lent, namely the cross. I think the Psalmist today captures the feeling of our hearts as we arrive here: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
And haven’t we all asked that question at least once in our lives? As we sing those words, they can quite frankly bring back painful memories, whether they be memories of past hurts, or reflections of current ones. Maybe it’s the time when you were sexually abused and felt abandoned because you were convinced no one would believe you. Maybe it’s the time you received a frightening diagnosis and you felt abandoned because you couldn’t enter into daily life with the same carefree attitude you previously had. Maybe it’s the occasion of the death of a loved one and you felt abandoned because everyone on the planet seemed joyful, except you. Maybe it’s the time you were laid off from your job and you felt abandoned because it seemed that no one valued your skills and talents.
We’d rather not be here at the cross, would we? But this week reminds us that without the cross, there is no resurrection. Not for Jesus, and so also, not for us. Jesus certainly had his moment in the Garden of Gethsemane when the knowledge of his impending death filled him with dread; and so it will be for us, countless times when we are called on to take up the cross. But as we enter this Holy Week, we are reminded gently that the cross, while significant, is not the end of the story. Yes, we have to suffer our own Good Fridays; but we confidently remember that we also get an Easter Sunday. And that is what gives us all the confidence to take up our cross and journey on.
These are not ordinary days – they are not for business as usual. I invite you all to enter into these Holy Days with passion, with prayerfulness and in faith. Gather with us on Holy Thursday at 7:30pm to celebrate the giving of the Eucharist and the Priesthood, and the call to service that comes from our baptism. On Good Friday at 3:00 in the afternoon, we will have the opportunity once again to reflect on the Passion, to venerate the cross that won our salvation, and to receive the Eucharist, which is our strength. Finally, at 8:00 on Holy Saturday night, we will gather here in a darkened church to keep vigil for the resurrection we have been promised. We will hear stories of our salvation, we will celebrate our baptism as we welcome new members to our family, seeing them fully initiated into the life of the Church, rejoicing with them in the victory of Christ over sin and death. No Catholic should ever miss the celebrations of these Holy Days, for these days truly sustain our daily living and give us the grace to take up our little crosses day by day.
Caiaphas had no idea how prophetic his words were. Actually, as far as the intent of his words went, they were nothing but selfish. The Jews didn’t want to lose their standing with the Romans. As it was, they had an uneasy peace. The Romans pretty much let them practice their religion as long as there wasn’t any trouble. But they knew that if everyone started following Jesus, the Romans would give preference to the new way, in order to keep the peace. The religious leaders couldn’t let that happen, so they began plotting in earnest to kill Jesus, planning to find him when he came to celebrate the upcoming feast day, which they were certain he would attend.
It’s a time of high intrigue, and for Jesus, his hour – the hour of his Passion – is fast approaching. We see that in our Gospel readings these days as much as we do in our own celebration of Lent. In just a few hours we will begin our celebration of Holy Week, waving palms to welcome our king, and praying through his passion and death. It is an emotional time for us as we know our God has given his life for us, and as we know our sins have nailed him to the cross. The sadness of our sinfulness comes to a peak this time of year.
But, this is where the significance of Caiaphas’s words brings us joy. Yes, it is better for one person to die than the whole nation. God knew that well when he sent his only Son to be our salvation. He took our place, nailing our sins and brokenness to the cross, dying to pay the price those sins required, and rising to bring the salvation we could never attain on our own. Caiaphas was right. It was better for one person to die than for the whole nation to die. That was God’s plan all along.
Have you ever had to deal with people working against you? Most of us have. Most of us have experienced people spreading lies about us, trying to get others to work against us. And today we find ourselves in good company. Today’s readings find the prophet Jeremiah, king David and Jesus all in that same boat.
A prophet’s job is never easy; nobody wants to hear what they don’t want to hear. So for Jeremiah, things are getting dangerous: people want him dead. The same is true for Jesus, who is rapidly approaching the cross. David finds that his enemies are pursuing him to the point of death, like the waters of the deep overwhelming a drowning man.
But all of them find their refuge in God. Jeremiah writes, “For he has rescued the life of the poor from the power of the wicked!” David takes consolation in the fact that “From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears.” And for Jesus, well, his time had not yet come.
When we are provoked like they were, how do we respond? Is our first thought to take refuge in God, or do we try to solve the problem on our own? If we don’t turn to God, we might find those waves overwhelming us; if we turn to God, things may or may not improve, but whatever the case, we will always find refuge and safety in our God.
Fear keeps us from doing all sorts of things the Lord wants for us. If we would truly let go of our fear and cling to our God, just imagine what he could do in us and through us. Ahaz was King of Israel, a mighty commander, but yet was so afraid of God and what God might do that he refused to ask for a sign. He would prefer to cut himself off from God rather than give himself over to the amazing power of God’s presence in his life. Because of that perhaps, he never lived to see the greatness of God’s glory.
But his weakness did not disrupt the promise. In the fullness of time, God’s messenger came to a young woman named Mary and proposed to accomplish in her life the sign that Ahaz was too afraid to ask for. She too was initially afraid, pondering what sort of greeting this was. She was also confused, not knowing how what the angel proclaimed could possibly take place in her life. Our reaction to God’s will for us is quite often the same, isn’t it?
The difference, though, was that Mary heeded the initial words of the angel that have resounded through Salvation history ever since: “Be not afraid.” And, thanks be to God, Mary abandoned her fear and instead sang her fiat, her great “yes” to God’s plan for her, and for all of us. “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” These words are reminiscent of what the Psalmist sings today: “Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will.”
And we know what happened from there. Mary certainly wasn’t confident that any of that could be accomplished through her own efforts, but she absolutely knew that God could do whatever he undertook. Nothing would be impossible for God, and she trusted in that, and because of that, we have the great hope of our salvation. We owe everything to Mary’s cooperation with God’s plan for our salvation.
And so the promise comes to us. We have the great sign that Ahaz was afraid of but Mary rejoiced in. We too are told that God can accomplish much in our own lives, if we would abandon our fears and cling to the hope of God’s presence in our lives. Can we too be the handmaids of the Lord? Are we bold enough to say, “Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will?” All we have to do is to remember the first thing the angel said to Mary: “Be not afraid.”
Just as the saraph serpent was lifted up on a pole in the desert for the people to live, so the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, was lifted up on the cross for the salvation of the world. In these late Lenten days, as we look upon the cross, either here in church or in our homes, our hearts surely must be stirred to remember the painful price our Lord paid for our salvation. With hearts filled with gratitude, we come to this Eucharist, with our eyes fixed on our Lord lifted up for us, who pours himself out for us again and still. When we see him lifted up, we remember that he is “I AM,” our crucified and risen Lord, and whenever we look to him, we are saved.
Susanna’s story is one of the most eloquent in the Old Testament Scriptures, in it we see the wisdom of the prophet Daniel, as well as the mercy and justice of God. But sadly, we also see in this story the fickleness of the human heart and the evil and treachery that makes up some of our darker moments.
This reading calls us to right wrongs, to be completely honest and forthright in our dealings with others, to seek to purify our hearts of any wicked intent, and most of all to seek to restore right relationships with any person who has something against us, or against whom we have something. Our prayer this day is that God’s mercy and justice would reign, and that God’s kingdom would come about in all its fullness.
I love when our readings lead us down a path and we have them all figured out, and then out of the blue, we find out they mean something completely else! So here it is, brothers and sisters in Christ, I’ll just say it: this story about the raising of Lazarus isn’t really about Lazarus at all! I mean, look at the story: Lazarus is easily the least significant character in the whole episode. Even though he would seem to be the center of attention, he is dead for most of the story, never says anything himself, and Jesus only says three words to him in a five-minute reading. All of these are big red flags that the Gospel writer has been playing a little joke on us and the real story is somewhere else. I love it when that happens!
And it might be easy to accept that. Okay, the story isn’t about Lazarus, but it is about how Jesus can raise people from the dead, right? Well, yes and no – it depends on what you mean by dead, I guess. Certainly, Jesus has the power to raise people from any kind of death, we know that, but I absolutely don’t think that simply resuscitating people from physical death is what the story is about. Actually, even though the story talks about eternal life some day, I’m not even sure the story is even about that kind of death and life. After all, Jesus doesn’t wait until some future resurrection to bring Lazarus back to life; he does it now, right before our eyes. I think we have to look a little harder and find the life that is right here and now.
Maybe today’s first reading can shed some light on what Jesus was talking about by death. Here the people of Israel are, for all intents and purposes, alive. But they are in captivity in Babylon, so as a people – as a nation, they are pretty much dead. They have no place to worship, they are subject to the harsh cruelty of their captors, and their whole way of life is being systematically exterminated. That’s a kind of death that’s hard to miss. But even now, the prophet tells them, God will open their graves and have the people rise out of them. God will heal their affliction and give them life in spirit. The kind of life God will give to the Israelites is, as the Psalmist says, “mercy and fullness of redemption.”
So the kind of death we’re talking about here is a death that comes about as a result of our daily living. It’s a death brought on by situations in which we find ourselves. We experience death in too many forms to name. For example: wars have left scars for generations; poverty sucks the life out of families, neighborhoods and nations; conflicts divide Christians and set religions against one another; rivalries and ambition among church people give scandal to outsiders; rancor rips apart families; the innocent are abused, political corruption in poor countries depletes essential resources, and so much more. Jesus comes to bring life to people dead in those situations.
And there’s also a kind of spiritual death that St. Paul talks about in our second reading today. “But if Christ is in you,” he says, “although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of righteousness. If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.” We all experience some kind of spiritual death in our lives and it is so painful to deal with it. Patterns of sin drag us down from our relationship with God. Addictions tear us apart from our loved ones and from our Lord. Indifference, apathy, and even scandal break us away from the human family and from the Church. Jesus comes to bring life to all of us who struggle with sin and experience this kind of spiritual death.
And he brings life to us in these situations right now, if we will let him. He doesn’t wait until some far-off resurrection time to make it happen. In another place in the Gospel, Jesus makes it clear that life is his primary mission. “I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly,” he tells us. Even so, Jesus is not put off by our death. As embarrassed as we may be about our own brokenness, as dejected and frustrated as we may be about our failure to drag ourselves out of the sin in which we find ourselves, Jesus still comes to us. Martha makes a big point about how Lazarus has been dead four days, as if there were nothing Jesus could do about it. That’s because the Jews believed the soul of a person hung around for three days, and after that he or she was really, really dead. But Jesus was able to raise Lazarus anyway. So it doesn’t matter how dead we are, because our death and our sin are never, never, never more powerful than the mercy of God. Never.
And the Tempter would try to convince us that we are not worthy of this kind of mercy and love and forgiveness and resurrection. He may convince us that, like Lazarus, we have a big heavy stone sealing us off from God. Our sins might seem that big sometimes. But Jesus will have none of that: “Roll away the stone,” he says. The Tempter might want us to be so embarrassed about our sin that we become convinced we actually stink of death, that there will surely be a stench. But Jesus assures us that if we believe, we will still see the glory of God and our stench will be dispelled by the breath of God’s Spirit. The Tempter might even make us think that our sins have bound us up so much – like Lazarus in his burial cloths – that we can’t even take a step forward to come out of our graves. But to all of that, Jesus says, “untie him and let him go!”
The Elect have been hearing special readings at the Masses they have attended these last three weeks. They are readings about our baptism, and so they relate well to the conversion they are experiencing and the preparations they are making for becoming one with us at the Easter Vigil in less than two weeks. But these are also readings for you and me, that we might look back at our own baptisms and recommit ourselves to our Lord once again. Conversion is something that goes on all of our lives if we are attentive to it.
So these readings have been incredible, particularly the ones from the Gospels. Each of these readings has been focused around one person who could well have been a catechumen, one of the elect, someone undergoing conversion to the faith. Two weeks ago, the woman at the well found Jesus to be the source of living water, a water that gave relief to the dryness of her faith. Last week, the man born blind washed in the pool at Siloam and came out able not only to physically see, but also to come to see Jesus as the way, the truth and the life. Today, I think, the Elect one is Martha. She experiences death in the grieving of her brother. But she comes to new life as Jesus attends to her faith and raises not just her brother, but her too, to new life. At the end of it, she goes to her sister Mary – this Mary who in a previous story sat at Jesus’ feet rather than help Martha cook for their guest but now refuses to even come out to see him. Martha has to go and tell the little white lie that Jesus is asking for her before Mary will leave the house. But this is how Martha witnesses to her faith, a faith which is made new and given new life with the raising of her beloved brother.
We’re all on different places of the journey in these closing days of Lent. Maybe, like Lazarus, we are all bound up, stinking of our sins, and sealed up in the tomb. Maybe, like Mary, we are hurt by all our resentments and refuse to even come out of the house. Maybe, like Martha, we have a fledgling faith and throw ourselves to Jesus asking to be made whole. Maybe, like the apostles, we don’t really get it, but are willing to go and die with Jesus anyway. Wherever we are, whatever our brokenness, whatever our sin, however long we have been dead and buried, Jesus comes to us today and beckons us to rise up and come out and be untied and to live anew.
And so, maybe in these closing days of Lent, we still have to respond to our
Lord’s call to live. Maybe you haven’t yet been to confession before Easter. We have confessions before and after next Saturday’s 5:00pm Mass, and then again on Tuesday the 30th at 7:30pm, and we invite you to come and have the stone rolled away and to be untied from your burial cloths. Perhaps in these last days of Lent, you have relationships you have to renew with the new life that Christ gives you. Wherever you find yourself, I urge you, don’t let Easter pass with you all bound up and sealed in the grave. Lent ends just before Vespers or Evening Prayer on Holy Thursday. That gives us around ten and a half days to take up our Lenten resolutions anew, or even make new ones, so that we can receive new life in Christ. Don’t spend these days in the grave. Come out, be untied, and be let go.