Sunday Lectionary: Arise and shine!

4th Sunday of Lent, 18th March 2012

In our First Reading last week we read about the giving of the Ten Commandments and this week we continue our Lenten tour through the high points of Old Testament Salvation History.

Our First Reading begins on a rather somber note. The Kingdom of Judah had abandoned God’s Law and, as a result, the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed and the people led into captivity. All of God’s promises to King David seemed to be lost! We hear the people’s song of lament in today’s Psalm.

However, because of God’s mercy and through His divine providence, the pagan King Cyrus decides to grant the Jews their freedom, releasing them from bondage.

In the light of the New Testament, we know that God’s promises to King David were not forgotten, but that they all found their fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth, both Son of David and Son of God! The freedom granted to God’s people by King Cyrus was simply a foreshadowing of Jesus’ work of salvation. It is through the King of Kings that we are released from the bondage of death and brought to new life.

In our Second Reading, St. Paul tells use that because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, [He] brought us to life with Christ”.  These words of St. Paul are themselves only an echo of the Master’s teaching. In this week’s Gospel Reading, during His discourse with Nicodemus, Jesus reveals the heart of the Father: 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.

Full of confidence, therefore, in God’s mercy and love, let us approach this week’s Eucharistic liturgy with the joy of those who have been granted new life 🙂

 

 

Reading I: 2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23

Our First Reading comes from the Old Testament book of 2nd Chronicles. 1st and 2nd Chronicles were originally a single book. The same is true for 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Samuel. However, when the Septuagint was produced (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), each of these books appeared in two parts. This separation has been maintained ever since.

The book of Chronicles was most likely written by a Levite from Jerusalem and covers roughly the same time period as 1 & 2 Kings. It initially focuses on the life of Solomon. After Solomon’s death there is civil war and the Kingdom of Israel is divided in two: the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah.  The book of Chronicles focuses on the story of the Davidic kings in the south.

As the book of 2nd Chronicles draws to a close, it narrates the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile. The extract selected for our First Reading this week comes from the final chapter of this book, in which King Cyrus of Persia issues an edict allowing the Jews to return home.

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!”

Questions:

  • Why were the people exiled?
  • How were they warned? How did they respond to these warnings?
  • Through what means were they restored to their homeland? Why is this surprising?
  • What spiritual meaning can we see in these events?

Commentary:

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.

The author paints a picture of complete moral rebellion against God by the entire people of Judah (“princes…priests…people”).

The Temple had originally been dedicated for a holy purpose. Likewise, God’s people were set apart as “a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). However, both the Lord’s people and His Temple had been defiled.

Their sin is described as “infidelity”  because they did not remain faithful to Yahweh and instead abandoned their covenant vows to the Lord. They did not retain their national identity nor did they live up to their holy vocation to be a “light for the Gentiles” – Isaiah 42:6. Instead, they became just as clouded with darkness as the inhabitants of the surrounding countries, “practicing the abominations of the nations”.

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. 

It is emphaized that, because of God’s great mercy, He repeatedly sent messengers to call the people back to faithfulness.

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. 

These messengers were mocked and ignored. Israel’s adultery continued unabated. Finally, enough was enough…

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. 

Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Chaldeans (Babylon) invaded Judah in 605 BC exiling many craftsmen to Babylon. In 597 BC he took Jerusalem, exiling the aristocracy to Babylon. During the revolt of Zedekiah in 586 BC he destroyed the Temple (“the house of God”) and exiled yet more Jews.

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.”

This quotation comes from Jeremiah 25:12. The “seventy years” which are mentioned can be calculated in several different ways too long and tedious to mention here.

It is interesting to note that punishment for neglecting the Sabbath is specifically mentioned. These are the Sabbath laws pertaining to the land, as described in the Pentateuch:

But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the LORD. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards – Leviticus 25:4

For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what is left. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove – Exodus 23:10-11

By keeping the people in exile, the land gets to “catch up” on its Sabbath rests. After seventy years God returns a purified people to a purified land.

In the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia, …

Cyrus of Persia conquers the Babylonians and in the first year of his reign he makes a proclamation. This is the pagan king whom God describes as “my shepherd…[who] will accomplish all that I please…[my] anointed…whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him” (Isaiah 44:28). The language here is quite surprising since these were titles typically reserved for Jewish kings and priests, not pagan rulers.

…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: 

Although the proclamation comes from King Cyrus, God’s people were in no doubt that this deliverance came from Yahweh.

“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!”

In 538 BC King Cyrus allowed the Jews in Babylon to return to home to rebuild the Temple (“a house in Jerusalem”). This decree is also quoted in the book of Ezra 1:1-4.

Apparently, Cyrus issued similar edicts for other nations and often restored the images of captured gods, but since the Jews had no images, he restored to them the sacred vessels which had been taken by Nebuchadnezzar.

 

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

This is a song of lament of one in captivity in Babylon. It was quite likely written after the return from exile, but the psalmist speaks vividly as though he is still there.

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.

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!”

How could we sing a song of the LORD
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand be forgotten!

May my tongue cleave to my palate
if I remember you not,
If I place not Jerusalem
ahead of my joy.

Questions:

  • Where is the psalmist?
  • What are “aspens”?
  • Why do the people hang up their harps?
  • Why are they lamenting?
  • What request is made of them? How do they respond? Why?
  • What promises does the psalmist make?

Commentary:

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

The psalmist calls punishment upon himself if he ever forgets his homeland.

By the streams of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. On the aspens of that land we hung up our harps.

The psalmist is in Babylon, exiled from his home in Zion (Jerusalem). The “streams of Babylon”  are the Tigris and the Euphrates (and their associated canals).

The psalmist and his countrymen sit (a posture of mourning) and weep. They hang up their harps on trees (“aspens”) because they have no reason to sing:

The joyful timbrels are stilled, the noise of the revelers has stopped, the joyful harp is silent. – Isaiah 24:8

They are away from their home and have no reason to play music.

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!”

The Babylonians urge them to sing the songs of their homeland…

How could we sing a song of the LORD in a foreign land?

…but how could they possibly do that while they are so far from home?

If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand be forgotten! May my tongue cleave to my palate if I remember you not, If I place not Jerusalem ahead of my joy.

As in the refrain, the psalmist calls punishment upon himself if he ever forgets his home.

 

Reading II: Ephesians 2:4-10

This week’s Second Reading comes from the letter to the Ephesians.  Ephesus was a large port city at the far west of Asia Minor and was the capital city of the Roman province of Asia:

It is in the 2nd Century that we first find evidence of this letter to the Ephesians being attributed to St. Paul. We know that he passed through here on his 2nd Missionary Journey (Acts 18:19-21) and that he used it as his headquarters during his 3rd Missionary Journey (Acts 19:1-20:1), staying for a total of about three years.

In the first three chapters of this letter the author outlines God’s great plan in which He builds a new community of people who are saved, sanctified and united by His Messiah. Our Reading comes from this early portion of the letter:

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.

Questions:

  • How does Paul describe God?
  • Why does Paul say that Christ came?
  • How does Paul say that we are saved? What are the consequences of this? What are our responsibilities?

Commentary:

Brothers and sisters: God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, …

The word “rich” is used many times in the letter to the Ephesians, stressing the abundance of God’s goodness.

“These are the true riches of God’s mercy, that even when we did not seek it, mercy was made known through His own initiative… This is God’s love to us, that having made us He did not want us to perish. His reason for making us was the He might love what He had made” – The Ambrosiaster (between A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles

…even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ – … – raised us up with him, and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus, …

Before we were spiritually dead, but through Christ divine life is restored. We find a very similar description of the Prodigal Son after his return home:

“…For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” – Luke 15:24

Paul says that we are “brought to…life…raised…seated..in the heavens”. There is an extremely close association between Christ and the members of His Body. By being united with Christ His members will share in His Resurrection.

…by grace you have been saved…

Paul says very clearly that we are saved by “grace”. Grace is a gift and can be considered as:

1. God’s favour
This is the condition for the gift’s bestowal (since grace is undeserved):

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord – Romans 6:23

2. God’s supernatural life
This is the content of the gift:

Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires – 2 Peter 1:4

The tense used here is interesting. St. Paul says that the Ephesians have been saved”. However, we should not understand salvation to be only a past event, it is also a future hope. We find that Scripture uses past, present and future tenses when referring to salvation.

…that in the ages to come He might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

The language used here emphasizes God’s abundance.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; …

The Second Vatican Council explains this phrase thus:

“By faith man freely commits his entire self to God . . . before this faith can be exercised, man must have the grace of God to move and assist Him; he must have the interior help of the Holy Spirit, who moves the heart and converts it to God, who opens the eyes of the mind and makes it easy for all to accept and believe the truth” -Vatican II, Dei Verbum, 5

Nobody can take credit for his own salvation. The great Biblical scholar and Early Church Father St. Jerome beautifully explains how faith is a “gift of God”:

Paul says this in case the secret thought should steal upon us that if we are not saved by our own works, at least we are saved by our own faith, and so in another way our salvation is of ourselves. Thus he added that statement that faith too is not in our own will but in God’s gift.

Not that He means to take away free choice from humanity … but that even this very freedom of choice has God as its author, and all things are to be referred to His generosity, in that He has even allowed us to will the good – Saint Jerome (between A.D. 386-387), Commentaries on the Epistle to the Ephesians 1,2,8-9

We say that salvation is conferred through Baptism:

“…and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ…” – 1 Peter 3:31

…and received through faith.

…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.

Protestants will often use this passage as “proof” that we are saved by “Faith Alone” (Sola Fide). However, the word “alone” is not to be found in this verse. Faith needs works to make it complete since “Faith without works is dead” – James 2:17.

Also, for Paul, faith is not simply believing, but a living out of that beliefAs one commentary put it “Faith is a gift which is freely given, but accepted by us at the price of surrender of ‘self'” 

We must neither err in thinking that we are saved by faith alone nor should we err by believing that we are saved by our works:

“Even if we have thousands of acts of great virtue to our credit, our confidence in being heard must be based on God’s mercy and His love for men. Even if we stand at the very summit of virtue, it is by mercy that we shall be saved” – St. John Chrysostom

The idea that we can earn our salvation is a heresy known as Pelagianism and was condemned in the Early Church. Our salvation is a free, unmerited gift of God’s grace:

For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? – 1 Corinthians 4:7

 

Gospel Reading: John 3:14-21

Today’s Gospel event takes place shortly after the cleansing of the Temple which we read about last week. Nicodemus, a “Pharisee” and “member of the Jewish ruling council” (John 3:1) comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness (John 3:2)…

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.

Questions:

  • What is significant about Nicodemus?
  • Why does he only come at night? What does Jesus say about light and darkness?
  • What discussion takes place between Nicodemus and Jesus prior to this passage?
  • What is Jesus referring to when he talks about “the serpent in the desert”? What did this event prefigure?
  • According to this passage, how do we know that God is love?
  • Why do some prefer darkness?

Commentary:

In the first part of this chapter (which is not included in the Lectionary) Jesus talks about the necessity of being “born again”. He then begins to speak in veiled terms about his future crucifixion:

Having made mention of the gift of baptism, He proceeds to the source of it, i.e. the cross – St. John Chrysostom

Jesus said to Nicodemus: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, …

Jesus is referring to an Old Testament event here that took place in the time of Moses:

But the people grew impatient… they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived. – Numbers 21:4-9

The book of Wisdom also refers to this event with Moses in the desert:

When terrible, fierce snakes attacked Your people and were killing them with their poison, You did not remain angry long enough to destroy your people. This trouble lasted for only a little while, as a warning. Then you gave them a healing symbol, the bronze snake, to remind them of what your Law requires. If a person looked at that symbol, he was cured of the snakebite-not by what he saw, but by you, the savior of all mankind. By doing this, you also convinced our enemies that you are the one who rescues people from every evil – Wisdom 16:5-8

St. Bede explains what Jesus was doing by referring to this Old Testament event:

[Jesus] introduces the teacher of the Mosaic law to the spiritual sense of that law; by a passage from the Old Testament history, which was intended to be a figure of His Passion, and of man’s salvation – St. Bede

So as the snake was “lifted up” on the pole, Christ will be “lifted up” on the wood of the cross. Not only that, he will also be “lifted up” from the grave and at the Ascension He will be “lifted up” to Heaven where He will be highly exalted:

See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. – Isaiah 52:13

Just as those who looked on the snake were saved from physical death, those with faith in Christ are also saved:

As then formerly he who looked to the serpent…was healed of its poison and saved from death; so now he who is conformed to the likeness of Christ’s death by faith and the grace of baptism, is delivered both from sin by justification, and from death by the resurrection: as He Himself said; “That whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” – St. Augustine

The significance of the serpent does not escape St. Augustine:

The serpent was the cause of death, inasmuch as he persuaded man into that sin, by which he merited death. Our Lord, however, did not transfer sin, i.e. the poison of the serpent, to his flesh, but death; in order that in the likeness of sinful flesh, there might be punishment without sin, by virtue of which sinful flesh might be delivered both from punishment and from sin – St. Augustine

“…so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life”

The “eternal life” spoken of here refers to both:

1. The duration of life which is given in Christ, which begins here on earth and points towards Heaven:

 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life – 1 John 5:13

2. The divine quality of this life

“…I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” – John 10:10

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. 

The heart of the Father is revealed:

“God loves each one of us as if there were only one of us to love.” – St. Augustine

Because of this love the Father gives us His Son:

If it were only a creature given up for the sake of a creature, such a poor and insignificant loss were no great evidence of love. They must be precious things which prove our love, great things must evidence its greatness. God, in love to the world, gave His Son – St. Hilary

The text, “God so loved the world”, shows intensity of love. For great indeed and infinite is the distance between the two. He who is without end, or beginning of existence, Infinite Greatness, loved those who were of earth and ashes, creatures laden with sins innumerable.

And the act which springs from the love is equally indicative of its vastness. For God gave not a servant, or an Angel, or an Archangel, but His Son. Again, had He had many sons, and given one, this would have been a very great gift; but now He has given His Only Begotten Son – St. John Chrysostom

As we saw two weeks ago, the reference to “his only Son” is an echo of Abraham’s offering of his “only son” Isaac (Genesis 22:2).

Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, …

Our salvation comes through faith in Christ:

He who believes in Him, and cleaves to Him as a member to the head, will not be condemned – Alcuin

…but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, …

Those who refuse to believe refuse the Divine Physician:

For why is He called the Savior of the world, but because He saves the world? The physician, so far as his will is concerned, heals the sick. If the sick despises or will not observe the directions of the physician, he destroys himself – St. Augustine

Why does Christ say they are “already condemned”?

What did you expect Him to say of him who believed not, except that he is condemned. Yet mark His words: “He that believes not is condemned already”. The Judgment has not appeared, but it is already given. For the Lord knows who are His; who are awaiting the crown, and who the fire – St. Augustine

St. John expands upon this idea and offers an alternative interpretation:

Or the meaning is, that disbelief itself is the punishment of the impenitent: inasmuch as that is to be without light, and to be without light is of itself the greatest punishment. Or He is announcing what is to be. Though a murderer be not yet sentenced by the Judge, still his crime has already condemned him. In like manner he who believes not, is dead, even as Adam, on the day that he ate of the tree, died – St. John Chrysostom 

…because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 

A Semitic idiom is used here; to believe in “the name” of someone is to believe in everything that person is and represents.

(The name “Jesus” literally means “God saves”)

And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. 

These final verses speak of darkness and light. How appropriate considering that Nicodemus approaches Jesus in darkness! The “light” here refers to Jesus Himself:

In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it – John 1:4-5

He calls Himself the light, whereof [John] the Evangelist speaks, “That was the true light”; whereas sin He calls darkness. – St. Bede

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.

St. John Chrysostom offers a beautiful paraphrase:

[It is] as if He said, “So far from their having sought for it, or labored to find it, light itself has come to them, and they have refused to admit it; Men loved darkness rather than light”, Thus He leaves them no excuse. He came to rescue them from darkness, and bring them to light; who can pity him who does not choose to approach the light when it comes unto him? – St. John Chrysostom

…and then offers an explanation of the insanity of choosing darkness over light:

Then because it seemed incredible that man should prefer light to darkness, he gives the reason of the infatuation, viz. that their deeds were evil….he who is conscious of his crimes, naturally avoids the judge. But criminals are glad to meet one who brings them pardon. And therefore it might have been expected that men conscious of their sins would have gone to meet Christ, as many indeed did; …but the greater part being too cowardly to undergo the toils of virtue for righteousness’ sake, persisted in their wickedness to the last – St. John Chrysostom

Augustine relates the subject of “the light” back to back to the topic which has run throughout these Readings, God’s amazing grace:

He calls the works of him who comes to the light “wrought in God”; meaning that his justification is attributable not to his own merits) but to God’s grace  – St. Augustine

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