March 12, 2018
Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on the 4th Sunday of Lent (Year B) on March 11, 2018, at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: 2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23; Psalm 137; Ephesians 2:4-10; and John 3:14-21.
It finally happened: today, for the first time in my life, I am wearing a pink vestment. Oops! No. I’m supposed to call it rose.
This vestment indicates that it is Laetare Sunday, the 4th Sunday of Lent. We’re more than halfway through our Lenten journey. Before the Church changed the readings in the lectionary in the 1960s, this was the day that we heard about the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. The message was to lighten up, to take heart, that Easter was coming.
However, with the change in the lectionary, I don’t think today’s readings tell us to lighten up. As we approach Easter, we focus more intensely on the entire mystery of Jesus Christ: not only on his resurrection, but also on his passion and death. As our first reading makes clear today, resurrection takes place only after suffering and death.
Let us enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ crucified, which Paul described to us last week as God’s “foolishness… wiser than human wisdom” and God’s “weakness… stronger than human strength.”
We Christians use the word “mystery” a lot. We don’t use it in the sense of a who-done-it murder mystery. There, the thought is, if we are clever enough and think hard enough, we will find a clear explanation of what has happened.
When Christians use the word “mystery,” however, it sometimes sounds as if it’s the big red emergency button we keep in the room when we talk about theology. We someone asks us a hard question, we simply say, “It’s a mystery.” No! That’s not it at all.
The central beliefs about our faith are mysteries, in that no matter how deeply we reflect on these things – be it the nature of the Trinity or Christ’s presence in the Eucharist – the full truth is beyond our human comprehension. One of great theologians of Vatican II, Edward Schillebeeckx, described it this way: it’s like a sparrow drinking from the foot of Niagara Falls. The understanding fills our brains, but there’s infinitely more that our minds can’t take in.
Nicodemus, a Pharisee, is starting to realize who Jesus is. He calls him “a teacher who has come from God.” But Nicodemus is cautious – approaching Jesus in the middle of the night. Is that because he’s scared to be seen with Jesus? Is it because he doesn’t fully comprehend who Jesus is? John’s metaphorical writing probably indicates all these things and more.
Jesus engages with Nicodemus in some pretty remarkable theology. And while people throughout the South might put “John 3:16” on placards at sporting events, it’s not a simple passage to comprehend. For John, Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension are all part of one great, salvific action. None of the pieces can really be separated from the others.
Our passage from Chronicles takes up this idea. The story of King Cyrus of Persia allowing the Judean people to return to Jerusalem makes no sense without first comprehending the horrors of the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the people to Babylon. In fact, the Babylonian exile is the event that makes Judaism a great religion. It was in Babylon that the Bible took form. It was there that the Jewish people were forced to reconcile how they could be God’s chosen people and still have bad things happen to them.
In this second half of Lent, we are forced to face that Christianity became a great religion through the seeming folly of the cross. We are forced to face the mystery of our own personal stories of suffering. If God is good and God is loving, how can God have allowed bad things to happen to us? As Paul said last week, “The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
In this second half of Lent, we are invited also to face the mystery of our own personal relationship with Jesus. How is Jesus my way and my truth and my life? We will never fully comprehend the identity of Jesus the Christ in this lifetime, but Lent calls us to focus more intently on him, to be like the sparrow at Niagara Falls, to attempt to take another sip from the abundant life-giving water that Jesus provides.
We continue with Jesus on the journey to Calvary… which is also the journey to his tomb… which is also the journey to his resurrection. “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.” It is in the very moment that Jesus Christ is lifted up on the cross that our victory over death is won.
Will we ever completely understand what this means in our lifetime? No, but that’s OK. It’s a mystery.
And the story of Nicodemus gives us hope. While he first approaches Jesus in the dark of night and with halting comprehension, we will see him again. John tells us that on Good Friday, after Jesus dies upon the cross, it is Nicodemus who comes in the afternoon with Joseph of Arimathea to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. “The light came into the world,” and “whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.”