Mother’s Day dawned here on a chilly, drizzly morning, but that didn’t matter to the thousands of mothers and their children who at last are able to see each other again, to hug, and kiss each other’s cheeks. For those of us who have lost our mothers, it is a time to remember and reflect, and to share of the joy of reunion as the pall of separation is gradually lifted from the lives of those under the threat of pandemic. Today, more than ever, we see, and touch, and feel the mighty power and tender touch of love, the strongest force in the universe.
Fittingly, the readings for this sixth Sunday of Easter are about acceptance, love, and union. This is especially true in the second and third readings, which
reflect on the great love that God has shown in the life, ministry, and death of Jesus. And Jesus charges us, as we heard, to love as God loves and whom God loves – fully, without stint or measure. And thus to save the world.
The opening story of the welcome of the Roman centurion Cornelius and his whole household into the community of faith shows us how God’s love joins together differing peoples into one great household of salvation. In Peter’s words, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him … he is Lord of all.” [Acts 10:34-36]. Divine love includes all human beings regardless of race, national origin, gender, social class, or any other barrier that people set up that creates division. As we are commanded to do likewise.
Today’s second reading and the gospel are specifically about love — God’s love for us manifested in the love of Jesus so wonderfully portrayed in the long farewell discourse during his Last Supper with his friends.
Throughout scripture, God’s love is likened to that of a mother concerned for her children. One of the most endearing passages comes from the Book of Isaiah where the voice of God promises, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” [Isaiah 49:15]. Jesus also compared himself to a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings to protect them [Matthew 23:37].
In the fourteenth century, the anonymous mystic we call Julian of Norwich, who was, by the way, the first woman to write a book in English, wrote simply enough in her great work, Revelations of Divine Love, “As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother” [Chapter 59].
That should be a steadying idea, a wonderful source of hope for us on this Mothers’ Day, and throughout the world. At some point today, we should offer a prayer for the mothers in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Palestine, and Myanmar who stand every day outside the prisons where sons and daughters, husbands, fathers, and even mothers themselves languish for months without contact with their loved ones or access to legal counsel, or even international agencies. And we should think of the mothers of our own soldiers who wait daily, praying that their children and husbands will be safe, that they will escape the physical and spiritual horrors of war. We should also bear in our hearts the love as well as the sorrow of the multitude of mothers in our own land who daily bury their children killed by gun violence.
And on this Mother’s Day, so long anticipated as this nation and much of the world begins its emergence from the long night of pandemic, we should not forget our original mother, Nature herself – “Mother Nature” to whom the whole world of living creatures owes for its existence. The description of Nature as our mother has a long history, one that was abruptly curtailed in Western Europe with the beginning of the Industrial Age, when Creation was increasingly denuded of its maternal attributes, exploited, ravaged, and rendered less and less hospitable to life. And her children continue to inflict grave harm on mothering Nature by the industrial poisoning of the land, seas and air, causing potentially irreversible global climate change, and the likely onset of the Sixth Great Extinction of living species on earth.
Humanity and all the other creatures on Earth are paying a terrible price for our callowness and rapacity. And the cost will only go up unless we act globally and swiftly. We can do better. Much, much better. And we must. Like our own mothers, Nature deserves and sometimes demands respect and protection. Humanity stands at a great crossroads in that respect — just as the many mothers of our own land and throughout the battle-torn and violent world require and deserve justice.
The message of Easter and the Easter season now drawing to a close remains simple but far, it seems, from the desperate grasp of far too many mothers: “Death shall have no dominion.” For all our mothers and for the Earth, we can and must give life, restoring those values that we associate with this sweetest of days – care, peace, hope, love, and beauty. Then we will all have a truly Happy Mother’s Day.
Today’s gospel reading is taken from Jesus’ long exhortation to his disciples at the Last Supper, one of the great Johannine parables or similes about his relationship to his followers. Jesus portrays himself as the central, supportive part of the vine that supports and nourishes the rest. Much has been made of his comparison, and much more will undoubtedly be said.
Familiarity has robbed us of the oddness of the comparison. Jesus seems to have been fond of depicting himself and his relationship to his followers in sometimes unusual ways — as a corral gate, an oil lamp, bread, water, or more conventionally to Jewish ears, a shepherd. But the grapevine had particular meaning in Judaism.
Beginning with the book of Genesis, Israel itself was compared to a grapevine. The prophets, Isaiah in particular, created a number of parables, some about the vineyard itself, some about the vine, some about the gardeners, but always about Israel and her relationship to God. Jesus continued that tradition with several parables, especially about the workers in the vineyard. But here, there is a difference. Now, Jesus himself is the vine, and we are his branches, drawing life and productivity from our union with him.
In the second reading, the writer tells us that we are to love one another as Jesus commanded us. Love holds us together, it makes us one, it is the life flowing through all the members of the community, it is in fact the Holy Spirit at work in each of us because we are part of the whole of us. It is the Holy Spirit of Love, the Spirit of Jesus himself, that makes our lives effective, that brings our good works to fruition. John says, finally, it is from the presence of the Spirit of Love that we know Jesus remains with us.
The shared love Jesus promises is nourished and perpetuated by communion with each other. It is surely no accident that this great discourse is taken from the account of the Last Supper in which Jesus says, simply, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” [John 13:34-35] That commandment and the bond of our love, our unity is the Eucharist, the bread Jesus was about to give for the life of the world [John 6:51-58].
Once again we are hearing episcopal threats of withholding eucharistic communion from those holding problematic views in the political realm, something that especially arises when Catholics rise to political leadership roles. Such threats were made to so excommunicate President John Kennedy, his brother Ted, Geraldine Ferraro, John Kerry, Patrick Kennedy. and now Joe Biden, usually over the fraught issue of abortion.
Withholding the Eucharist to force Catholic politicians to submit to ecclesiastical pressure and in effect to violate their oaths of office and consciences is equivalent to spiritual terrorism, the prospect of which has so alarmed generations of Protestant and other Americans who fear untoward interference in American politics by “Rome.” Suspicion of what was regarded as inevitable ecclesiastical coercion played a large part in the defeat of Al Smith, the first Catholic candidate for presidential office in 1924. That hoary suspicion is not allayed by reiterations today of episcopal demands and threatened punishment by excommunication.
Opposition to abortion is not limited to Catholics of course. And while many Catholics are fundamentally opposed to abortion, as I am, it remains an extremely complex issue morally and politically. Shibboleths and loyalty oaths will not resolve the problems. Neither will weaponizing the Eucharist.
As with his image of the good shepherd, Jesus portrays himself as the true vine, the real vine, the source of everlasting life, Israel itself. Whatever threatens to disrupt our unity as members of his body, threatens our unity with him. If we create divisive issues about the rich and poor, those of different races, so-called illegal immigrants, or anyone else of whom we disapprove or differ from, we are to that extent no longer sharing the same life and love that is the sign of the presence of Christ’s Holy Spirit. That is a much deeper and more tragic “excommunication.” What makes us one with Jesus, makes us one with each other. When we forget that, we wither and fall away or get cut back.
And that takes us back to the first reading, which, at the end, describes what happened when the Spirit of Christ transformed Saul of Tarsus, the enemy of the Church, into Paul, the greatest missionary the church has ever seen. The church, Luke says, was then at peace, making steady progress in the fear of the Lord, and enjoyed the consolation of the Holy Spirit [Acts 9:31]. Here, surely, we hear advance echoes of the great feast of Pentecost which is coming soon.
On this Mother’s Day, let us pray that our community, our nation, and the wider world too, will continue to strive to overcome whatever divisions threaten that unity, and so become a living vineyard of true friends, animated by the loving Spirit of Jesus living within us and among us.
After the revisions of the liturgy following the Second Vatican Council, this fourth Sunday of Easter was called “Good Shepherd Sunday” because of the gospel reading in which Jesus draws out a parable about sheep and their shepherds. It is also known as Vocation Sunday, and had even other titles before things got organized, so to speak.
The gospel readings in all three years of the liturgical cycle focus on Jesus as the true shepherd of Israel, which is not the kind of theme we have been hearing up to today in the Sundays after Easter. The focus has shifted.
Only the gospel mentions sheep and shepherds, but the underlying message is really about recognition – seeing something or someone for what they truly are. The word Jesus uses is “know”: ‘I know my sheep and they know me.’ And because they know him, they follow him. We follow him.
For those of us who don’t know a lot about shepherding, there is a point here that may escape attention. The sheep follow the good shepherd. Otherwise, they must be driven from behind, often with a canny border collie nipping at their heels. Few shepherds simply walk in front of the sheep who confidently follow, more like ducklings after a mother duck. It gets down to trust, a trust based on confidence and in the case of ducks and chicks, imprinting. They are impressed with life-saving recognition shortly after birth – or hatching in their case. There is matter here for a interesting comparison with baptism, but not today.
Jesus describes our relationship to him, the true or “good” shepherd, in terms of how sheep recognize the true shepherd, particularly by his voice. Since domesticated sheep are not very independent and are generally pretty timid and easily panicked, voice recognition is much more important for their safety and survival than it is, say, for a computer. In fact, it isn’t important all for the computer to recognize my voice. It’s important to me. But sheep can get into a lot more trouble than computers do if they fail the test of voice recognition. And so can we.
The theme of recognition also appears in both the first and second readings as well as the responsory psalm. In Peter’s sermon from the Acts of the Apostles, which follows on last week’s reading, he declares, “if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a cripple, that is, by what means this man has been healed, be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him this man is standing before you well.”
The word “known” here means the same as “recognized,” and the passage could have just as well been translated, “recognize that this man was healed in the name of Jesus.” The choice is between recognizing Jesus as living and active among us, the saving presence of God, or failing to. The little parable of how the rejected stone became the cornerstone is an image of the importance of being alert to God’s presence in Jesus and also in each other.
For Peter and in John’s first epistle, that lesson is applied to both Jesus, the true Shepherd, and also to his true followers. John writes, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not recognize us is that it did not recognize him” [1 Jn 3:1-2].
For us today the question is, do we really recognize each other as God’s daughters and sons, as sisters and brothers of Jesus, and in fact, members of Jesus’ own body? Because if we do, we will act accordingly. We will love one another with the same love with which God loved us. But if we despise and reject each other for whatever reason, we are also despising and rejecting both God and God’s love for us in Christ. Whatever our ethnic origin, our nationality, our gender, our social position, our political party – whatever tends to distinguish us from one another is ultimately of no consequence. We are to be one flock with one shepherd. As followers of the Good Shepherd, we are known by how we love one another.
In a word, true followers of Jesus are recognized by their recognition. It is all one: Jesus recognizes us as we recognize him, and as the Father recognizes Jesus and us in Jesus by our effective love for one another.
We are still in the upper room this Sunday, as if the celebration of our eucharist lodged us with the disciples in a never-ending reunion with the Risen One. We are there as the two disciples return, no doubt breathlessly, with the incredibly wonderful news that they had met Jesus on their way to Emmaus, disheartened after his execution. And they are greeted with the news that he has indeed risen and appeared to Simon – an appearance not included in other accounts of Jesus’ manifestations following the Resurrection, except for a surprising remark by St Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians (15:5).
Suddenly Jesus is there among them. In both John’s and Luke’s gospels, Jesus first says to his terrified disciples, “Peace be to you.” Then, to their astonished eyes he identifies himself by showing them his hands and feet. Luke does not mention the marks of nails, or the wound in his side that we learn of in John’s gospel, but the inference is clear. “Do not be afraid. It is I.”
Luke does not tell us that the disciples actually touched Jesus, something John dwells on and eventually refers to in the opening verse of his first letter. It hardly needed to be said. Jesus is truly present bodily. He eats before them, a further sign that he is really present, not some figment of their collective imagination. Again, as on the road to Emmaus, he opens their minds to the truth of the scriptures, the good news which is to be preached to all the nations.
To be sure, we could use some good news today. And the gospel message still challenges us to believe in the real presence of Jesus in our lives as we confront violence, hatred, and indifference in so much of our world. His presence is revealed in those lives when we follow his teaching, ultimately and especially in our treatment of the wretched of the earth — the homeless and persecuted, those starved and exploited by the inequity of economic systems gone awry, those imprisoned for whatever reason, refugees, and those who differ because of ethnicity, religion, or gender.
Last Sunday, we learned of divine mercy and human mercy, the evidence of our unity with the Risen One. For “whoever keeps his word, truly has the love of God made perfect in them” – the final line of John’s letter today.
The burden of mercy is often very heavy, as we are witnessing in the efforts of the government to resolve the plight of the refugees at our southern border, especially the thousands of children fleeing violence, crushing poverty, and environmental collapse in much of Central America. Human traffickers have been quick to wrest their last savings from them or their families with false promises of assistance in reaching the promised land. They are often called “coyotes” which is an insult to the animals.
In the Book of Revelation, when John is tallying the crimes of “Babylon,” an undeniable reference to the Roman Empire, he concludes the list of the spoils brought to the city for the amusement or comfort of its merciless citizens with an ominous note, one too often passed over: human lives [Rev. 18:13]. Human trafficking is the final and most grievous of all the sins that lead to the destruction of the empire. It is not only the traffickers who incur the wrath of God, moreover, but all those who benefit from the crime.
In both John’s and Luke’s gospels, Jesus first says to his terrified disciples, “Peace be to you.” Not only that, in the passage of Luke’s gospel we heard today he says that metanoia and the forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem [Luke 24:47]. Jesus does not say “do penance.” Rather, he is again telling us to change our way of thinking — our whole way of seeing reality. And with that, to change our way of living – to do justice, to practice mercy and forgiveness. “Reform your lives!” Peter preaches.
Last Sunday, we heard in the Gospel of John about the mission Jesus gave his disciples on the evening of his resurrection. He breathed the Holy Spirit into them, the Spirit of love and unity, of reconciliation, and forgiveness. Luke’s account of Jesus’ appearance that night contains the same lesson, the same command — a complete change of mind and heart expressed in justice, mercy, and forgiveness. That shouldn’t be surprising, because that was what Jesus preached and taught before he was crucified.
Today, as we inevitably turn our attention to the victims of human trafficking, not only along the southern border, but throughout our nation and truly throughout the world, we can do no better than to start with the transformation of our hearts and lives. Where there is peace, there can be justice. But without justice, there will be no true peace.
The Sunday after Easter, which is also known with greater reason as Resurrection Sunday, has even more names: Low Sunday, Quasimodo Sunday, and most recently Mercy Sunday thanks to Pope John Paul II. The earlier names referred to Latin words used to begin or celebrate the Eucharist and we still hear in the entrance song “Like newborn children” from the first Letter of Peter [1 Pet 2:2]. “Quasimodo,” familiar to us as the deformed bell-ringer in Victor Hugo’s great novel, is not part of that history, although the character was so named because as an infant he was found abandoned at Notre Dame cathedral on Quasimodo Sunday.
There is nothing “low” about the feast, except that it follows in the wake of the glory of Resurrection Sunday. Or, rather, continues it, for the gospel account in particular picks up the narrative with Jesus’ appearance that very night. The liturgies of this week all reflect that glory, reluctant to limit the celebration to just one day.
The readings from the Acts of the Apostles and the first letter of John expand the message of Easter first in the account of the
manner of living shared by the earliest followers of “the Way” as Luke retells it, and then with the personal and global implications of recognizing Jesus as Savior and Son of God. But it is the gospel that is so arresting.
First, the author of the gospel describes Jesus’ commission to the crowd of disciples cowering in the upper room, perhaps not surprisingly as the ability to forgive one another. But he adds to this the power to withhold forgiveness as well – something that will require considerable reflection over the centuries. But this double endowment follows on the gift of the Holy Spirit, this gospel’s version of the coming of the Holy Spirit to these same disciples on the Feast of Pentecost that Luke so wonderfully relates in the Acts of the Apostles.
Mercy – “misericordia” in the familiar Latin, “unhappy heart,” compassion — is right at the heart of it all – both God’s mercy and ours. It is the frequent cry for mercy that moves Jesus to perform his most astounding acts of healing: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David” [Matt 15:22, Luke 18:38 and elsewhere]. Twenty years ago, in his 2001 homily on this April Sunday, Pope John Paul II extolled mercy as “the Easter gift that the Church receives from the risen Christ and offers to humanity at the dawn of the third millennium.” [https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/homilies/2001/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_20010422_divina-misericordia.html].
The great Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart, extolled divine mercy as “the highest work that God ever performed in all creatures” [German Sermon 7.] In one of his most memorable sermons he continued, “God’s highest work is mercy, and this means that God places the soul in the highest and purest place that she can attain to, into space, into the sea, into a bottomless ocean, and there God works mercy.”
Shakespeare, in the voice of Portia in “The Merchant of Venice” memorably echoes the thought:
“The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes…
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice” [Act IV, Sceme 1].
It is showing mercy, the active practice of compassion, that we mirror the divine gift of the spirit in forgiveness and resistance to every form of evil. Addressing the wounds of hunger, ignorance, want, and disease has from the earliest Christian era been known as “the works of mercy.” In Matthew’s gospel, they provide the heart of Jesus’ last sermon [Matt. 25:31-46]. Today as well, we are ever more increasingly aware of the desperate need for active compassion toward Creation itself, as Pope Francis has insisted in his great encyclical “Laudato Sí” – the animals, plants and the whole living planet itself, now all under threat because of selfishness, greed, and indifference.
Jesus taught us that the measure of our compassion is the mercy we show to others, which is the heart of forgiveness — ‘letting go,” “unbinding.” Today’s gospel underscores this in the story of “Doubting Thomas,” whose disbelief is overwhelmed by a simple, merciful act of kindness. “Come, see. Touch me and believe.”
It hardly needs noting that we live in vexed and troubled times, not very much different from the situation of people in Palestine when Jesus came to Jerusalem riding on a donkey’s colt. It was an event rich with symbolic meaning for the Jews of the time and later for Christians throughout the world.
Only the gospel of John mentions palm branches, which gave the day we celebrate its common title. Luke mentions nothing about branches at all. But date-palm branches were carried even in ancient times by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem as a sign of triumph and liberation, and they find mention in this regard in the Book of Revelation [Rev 7:9]. Date-palms grew in the Jordan valley and still do, but at that time, it is unlikely that fruitful trees grew in and around Jerusalem, in the more mountainous region. Often olive branches are substituted, and a common translation has “reeds,” but the ceremonial plant-life really isn’t nearly as important as was the donkey Jesus rode as he entered Jerusalem.
All the gospels mention the young animal, although Mark (alone) points out that it was a colt on which no one had yet ridden, which is something of a miracle in itself. Jesus may have been the first donkey-whisperer on record. But the donkey, or ass, was considered a beast of burden rather than war animal, which is the important point. The reference here to Zechariah 9:9 is made clear by the citation of this singular passage by Matthew and John::
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Behold, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Jesus probably entered Jerusalem in the midst of long line of pilgrims coming for the unusually holy feast, for Passover and the sabbath coincided that year. It would have been a joyous crowd. Perhaps riding on a young colt would not have seemed unusual. But the shouts of “Hosannah,” one of the rare Hebrew words that survived in the Greek New Testament, is significant, for at root it means “savior” [Ps 118:25]. Matthew, Mark, and John all mention it. At least Jesus’ faithful followers recognized and remembered the significance of this jubilant procession in that holy year.
Jesus knew what awaited him, however. He had predicted many times that he would die in Jerusalem, executed as a threat to the reigning religious and political cadres in league with the Roman imperial agents. In Luke’s Gospel, as Jesus looked out over the city just before entering it, he wept because it failed to truly recognize the time of its visitation [Luke 19:41-44]. And so, despite the joyful shouts and songs, our liturgy today continues with the first of the gospel readings that relate the events leading to Jesus’ betrayal, trial, execution, and, lest we forget, his resurrection.
The redeeming death of Jesus has never been easy to fathom. It challenges us perhaps more than ever before to understand how he accepted suffering and death but in this dreadful way reconciled the human race to God, overcoming the terrible division caused by the whole history of sin, estrangement, and despair. He offered his life in exchange for ours. His name itself means “God saves.”
And that is why our first two readings, carefully chosen from the Book of Isaiah and St. Paul’s letter to the Christian community at Caesarea Philippi are so important for understanding and faith, perhaps especially today. They prepare us to grasp, not with our minds so much as with our hearts, what we will remember during Holy Week, reaching a climax on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Today, we begin our own pilgrimage with the gospel reading from Mark, which recounts the mystery of God’s love, a love made real, visible, and effective in the trial, death, and resurrection of Jesus. All God asks of us here and now is to listen — carefully and with love.
Today western Christians begin the last full week of Lent, which ends with Holy Thursday and the solemn commemoration of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection begins. There is an underlying tone of urgency in the readings. Jesus’ hour has come. And with it, ours.
The first reading from Jeremiah points ahead to the new, or more accurately, renewed covenant God has made with humanity. Scripture
shows how over the centuries the original covenant was renewed time and time again, each time more expansively and deeper than those broken when our ancestors fell away from the promises made on our behalf. Each time, God forgave, restored, renewed, and expanded the ancient bond. What we learn from Jeremiah and Ezekiel is that the final, renewed covenant will differ in an ultimate sense. It will extend to all humanity and it will be internalized in our hearts and minds, no longer resting on obedience to an external rule. But like the former enactments of that everlasting bond, it requires acceptance and agreement. We ratify that pledge by the way we live, sometimes even to the shedding of blood. “Martyr,” after all, means “witness.”
It wasn’t by accident that the Christian scriptures were collected under the title New Covenant — and we should remember that “covenant” and “testament” mean the same thing, a binding contract between parties, as St. Paul and the Epistle to the Hebrews explain. In ancient times, important covenants – contracts, if you will — were signed in blood. And as we will hear frequently in the days to come, so too the renewed, final convent would be ratified by blood witness, that of Jesus.
Jesus himself insisted that he had not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them [Matt. 5:17] — to complete the Ancient Covenant by renewing it absolutely. He did that by the shedding of his blood for the life of the world, just as the original covenant was sealed with the blood of sacrifice.
In John’s gospel read today, Jesus alludes again as he did when he spoke at night with Nicodemus [John 3:14-15] to the Nehushtan, the ancient symbol used by Moses to heal the Hebrews who had broken their covenant with God [Numbers 21:8-10]. To be “lifted up” meant to the Jews of Jesus’ day this above all – to be crucified.
The “letter” to the Hebrews points clearly to Jesus’ cross as the instrument enacting the ultimate covenant. This long, profound mediation devotes considerable effort to show how this renewed covenant does not abrogate the former pledges, but includes all the others. The culmination of the blood sacrifice that saves all of humanity, as we will hear increasingly in the days to come, is revealed in God’s acceptance and blessing of Jesus’ willingness to die in testimony to God’s faithfulness by raising him from death to eternal life. As Risen Lord, Jesus is the pledge and warrant of God’s absolute commitment to humanity, the savior of the world.
“Now has decision come upon the world. Now will evil be overthrown. Now will I draw all men and women to me” [John 12:31-33]. And that is where our Lenten pilgrimage brings us on this fifth Sunday of Lent. It’s especially a good day to think seriously about mending our own broken relationships. Next week, Palm Sunday, we begin Holy Week, which celebrates the climax and fulfillment of the Ancient Covenant, the pledge of an eternal Easter.
In the coming week our Jewish sisters and brothers will celebrate Passover, the great enactment of God’s pledge of fidelity, the archetype of deliverance, the model by which the Christian mysteries would in time be illuminated and which are recalled frequently during the Easter liturgies. So let us pray in this time of anxiety and conflict that we will all come to know fully the forgiveness and renewal God offers, so that we will experience the end of the reign of sin and death in our own lives and that of the whole world.
There doesn’t seem to be much joy in today’s readings, at least not at first glance. And definitely not in the first reading. But this is one of the two Sundays in the year that were traditionally named for joy — Gaudete Sunday in Advent and Laetare Sunday today, each named for the first words of the Latin Psalms once sung as entrance hymns, the emphatic “Rejoice!”
It often seems that if there is cause for joy in the world today, it’s not much. The pandemic is still striking people all over the world, despite the amazing development of a number of vaccines now being administered as fast as needles can be stuck into arms – at least among nations that can afford them. Sometimes the shortage is simply a heart-breaking function of global poverty, as in sub-Saharan Africa, India, Pakistan, Cambodia, and Bangladesh, or it may have political causes, such as the enormous disparity of vaccinations in Israel, the world’s leading inoculator, and the greatly underserved Palestinian population of the “occupied territories” — Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. Sometimes the disparity is based on race, religion, or ethnicity, as in the United Sates and elsewhere.
And while we may pretend otherwise, the virus is still spreading throughout the world and people are still dying from the disease it causes. Add to that the unprecedented storms and other natural disasters that have recently battered East Asia, North America, and Europe, and the deadly conflicts still raging around the world from Myanmar to Yemen. But perhaps that is all the more reason why joy and remembrance are so important today. Occasionally there are real signs of hope worth celebrating and of ways forward to a brighter future. Sometimes it takes a little digging to discover them.
Today’s readings provide encouraging opportunities. The first describes the “Babylonian captivity” of the Jews in the 6th century before
the Common Era. It’s hard to understate the shock to the Chosen People of a catalogue of disasters that befell them and yet provided some of the great prophetic literature of all time. Earlier, Jerusalem had resisted the attacks of the Assyrian army, but under the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, who defeated the Assyrians, Jerusalem and the surrounding territory was invaded and occupied by the army of the greatest empire of the time. Solomon’s Temple was destroyed and the sacred vessels and ornaments carted off to Babylon, the capitol. Most of the population was deported there too.
After about seventy years, the Jewish exiles were allowed to return to Jerusalem singing for joy. They were liberated, by the way, by the Persians – the people of modern Iran, who under Cyrus the Great had defeated the Babylonians.
The account is taken from the end of the second book of Chronicles. It starts off gloomily enough. The missing verse, 18, even relates how “all the vessels of the house of God, great and small” were taken to Babylon, where they were destroyed. Not among them was something called the Nehushtan, a wooden pole with a brass serpent attached to it which Jesus refers to in the gospel reading. According to Numbers 21:9, God had sent serpents among the people to punish them for their loss of faith. When the people turned to Moses for help, he was instructed by God to make an image of a serpent and place it on a pole. “And if a serpent bit anyone, if he looked at the bronze serpent he would live.”
The Nehushtan was probably a religious artifact the Hebrews had looted from one of the pagan temples they destroyed during their invasion of Canaan. But at the end of the eighth century, King Hezekiah had it removed from the Temple and destroyed even though its origins were attributed to Moses because people were worshipping it with incense [2 King 18:4]. Nevertheless, the story provides the backdrop for today’s gospel, which not only reminds us that Lent is a time to rejoice, but also shows us why. In the Gospel reading Jesus points to this strange figure as a portent of his own crucifixion. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the son be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Not merely healing, but life itself, eternal life.
The author comments, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his own Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” The ‘so’ here means “in this way.” But in what way? Jesus himself tells us: the way of the cross. To be lifted up, as we read later in the 12th chapter of John, means to be crucified: “‘When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men and women to me.’ And he said this to show by what death he was to die” [John 12:32-33]. To die for the life of the world.
The passage from St Paul’s letter to the Christians at Ephesus, our second reading today, reflects on the same theme, but points specifically to the effects of Christ’s loving sacrifice for us: “…God, out of the great love with which he loved us… made us alive together with Christ – raising us up with him, making us sit with Christ in the heavenly places – in order that in the coming ages God might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us…”[Eph 2:4-7].
God fulfilled his promise to redeem the Chosen People when Cyrus the Great overthrew the Babylonian empire and let captive peoples return to their homelands. More than that, Cyrus undertook to restore the Temple the Babylonians had destroyed. The exile was over, and the exiles entered into a new life. In time, Judea and Jerusalem would be subject to invasion by Greeks and Romans, and eventually by Christian Crusaders and Muslim armies, but the joy expressed by the returning captives in that long-ago moment was etched forever in memory. The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 to be a home especially for the persecuted Jews of a far more sinister empire bears a striking similarity to that original Return.
For us too it gets down to what we started with in today’s opening prayer: the life of faith, hope, and above all, love. All of Lent, all our observances, all our fasting and self-denial, everything should increase our commitment, our confidence, our active goodness to others, or all of it is pointless. For, as Paul reminds us at the conclusion of todays’ second reading, “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” [Eph 2:1].
It sounds simple, but it isn’t. It takes time and effort and a lot of faith and hope and charity to become the joyful artworks that God wants us to be. But that is why there is something called Lent, and moments like Laetare Sunday, opportunities to remember God’s promises and to reposition ourselves in God’s redeeming presence.
It has been almost 21 years since Pope John Paul II visited Egypt, Jordan, and the Holy Land, where the frail and failing pope solemnly asked forgiveness for the Church’s sins against those it had persecuted in times past — Jews, Muslims, and other Christians. In Israel, at the shrine dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust, John Paul specifically acknowledged the Church’s complicity in anti-Semitism. Pope Francis’ pilgrimage to Iraq, a country still torn by conflict and sectarianism, differs. He went as a peace-maker, extending the hand of friendship to Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Mandaean-Sabaeans, Yazidis, other religious minorities, as well as the various Christian denominations from Ur in the south, near Basra, to Mosul and Qaraqosh in the north, where the people still speak Aramaic, the language Jesus would have used. Francis accorded it special importance in his itinerary. Ur, near Basra, the birthplace of Abraham, the Father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, was also a site of special interest to the pope.
I accompanied a delegation of Dominican sisters and supporters to these ancient places in 2001 and twice more in the years that followed in the wake of the war launched against Saddam Hussein after the invasion of Kuwait and during the “Insurgency.” I visited ancient churches, monasteries, and mosques, and met wonderful, generous people. That was before ISIS invaded the country, demolishing churches and even mosques wherever they could. The so-called Caliphate was first announced in Mosul, which had been the site of Dominican missions in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and again from the nineteenth century to the present. The devastation of these ancient places was appalling.
Still riven by factionalism and violence, Iraq has been slowly and painfully rebuilding. The number of Christians has been more than halved. The significance of Pope Francis’ pilgrimage is therefore hard to miss. Even though he was cautioned not to go, he insisted. And, appropriately in this season of preparation for great Easter celebrations, we have witnessed in his words and actions signs of the love and reconciliation that sum up the whole meaning of Lent.
Today’s readings begin with Moses, and specifically with the Ten Commandments, the moral code that will forever be associated with
his name. It’s especially important to see the importance that is attached to the Sabbath rest. It’s always so easy to get sucked into the whirlpool of a profit economy and forget that workers need a day off as well as a livable wage. In Egypt, the Hebrews never were allowed to rest, so God made sure that everyone was given a break, not least of all so they could worship God. What was so revolutionary about the Ancient Covenant was that everyone was entitled to that freedom — women, children, political refugees, even slaves and farm animals. And it’s certainly not possible for the rich to worship God well when grinding the poor into the dirt. Envy and jealousy don’t dispose any of us to receive and share God’s blessings.
Of course that isn’t good business sense. But God’s ways always seem foolish to those who idolize money. And that isn’t the only scandal.
Paul, a Jew reared as a Pharisee, a citizen of the Roman Empire, was painfully aware that the message he preached, the Good News taught by Jesus, and the meaning of Jesus himself, was scandalous and foolish to the religiously sensitive Jews and the philosophically trained Greeks. How could the Messiah of God have been executed like a common criminal? What possible message could this itinerant rabbi from the hills of Galilee have to teach the great thinkers of Athens and Alexandria?
Paul simply reminds us that God’s ways and our ways often seem entirely contradictory. It’s especially tempting to start cutting corners, whittling away those merciful parts of religious observance, the parts that give people holidays from work and school and even from commerce and industry, the ones that allow us to catch our breath and even have a little fun.
I think that is why Jesus became so angry when he arrived at the Temple and found it full of money changers and hucksters selling animals for sacrifice. The outer court had become nothing more than a huge religious bazaar, a marketplace for religious merchandise. And making a tidy profit by gouging the poor was no doubt a big part of what was going on.
John’s gospel places this scene at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The other evangelists thought it happened near the end. One way or another, it was a major turning point in Jesus’ life, one from which there was no retreat. He had positioned himself in opposition to the religious authorities and, as he pointed out, for the honor of God. From that moment, he was a marked man.
Corruption and the need for reform is woven into the fabric of most if not all human institutions. The love of money, even more than of power, is often the root cause, and it was his recognition of this failure that sparked Jesus’ outrage in the temple. That reform takes root is itself a miracle of resurrection. Where it is lacking, desolation follows. Christianity is hardly immune.
Repentance, metanoia, means changing our way of thinking, our whole way of life to the extent that it wars against the spirit. If we are going to grow closer to what God intends for us, for all human beings, we have to leave the sins and mistakes of the past behind, acknowledged but not belabored, and strike out fresh and new. This, surely is prominent in the mission and ministry of Pope Francis this weekend.
Wherever sinfulness has bound people — in our homes, our communities, our workplaces — we need to break free, to make peace through love, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It is never easy, and sometimes it hardly seems possible. Factionalism and tribalism, and the inevitable demonization of those with whom we differ religiously, ethnically, or politically because they represent a different way of doing things is not just foolish and self-defeating. It strikes at the root of both our democratic form of government and our faith.
So while there’s time, let us pray that God will give us the wisdom and strength to rekindle the warmth of charity, to forgive, to reconcile ourselves with our brothers and sisters here and throughout the world so that we may be called and may truly be children of Abraham and Abraham’s God.
Back in 1974, as I contemplated a year at Oxford, I had planned to study under the watchful eye of the preeminent scholar of religious mysticism of the day, R.C. Zaehner, who died suddenly on his way to mass just before I arrived. His final book (of many), Our Savage God, published earlier that year, might aptly describe the image of God in today’s first reading. Zaehner took as his starting point the savagery of Charles Manson, who arguably typified how twisted zealotry poisons the waters of religion. Had he lived longer, Zaehner would have grasped the meaning of the Jonestown Massacre four years later, and a decade after that the “massacre” at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. And the atrocities following the rise of ISIS, the so-called “Islamic State.”
By any stretch of the imagination, anyone who sanctions the sacrificial murder of an innocent child (or anyone else) is savage. Slaughtering the entire Egyptian army and thousands of Hebrews as they made their way across the deserts of the Middle East does not soften the image, and we have only to look back at the story of the Great Flood to glimpse a strangely and remorselessly punitive deity. The sacrifice of his daughter by Jephthah to fulfil a vow (Judges 11:30-39) and the killing of Uzzah for steadying the Ark of the Covenant as it wobbled on the cart carrying it to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6:7) round out but hardly exhaust the ancient dread of what or who was perceived as a savage divinity.
Bronze Age religious sensibility, reflected in these accounts, differs vastly like its morality from the gospel of Jesus, although we still hear echoes of it in the ravings of fanatics to this day. You have only to read Matthew 5:38-44 to see the gulf that separates the visions of the two ages. But it is not only the sacrifice of Isaac that concerns us on this second Sunday of Lent. The mention of Moriah, or Mount Moriah as it came to be known ,the Temple Mount, links the story with today’s gospel, which narrates the vision of Jesus seen by his disciples on yet another mountain, traditionally Tabor. Both accounts deal with a sacrificial death, the second, like the first, becomes the favored explanation of the death of Jesus, as we see in the passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans.
On this second Sunday of Lent, Catholics the world over stop to consider this mystery in the light of one of the most
astounding manifestations of God’s gracious presence in all of scripture, an event which has acquired the title of Transfiguration. The link between the two readings is that fragment of the Epistle to the Romans, which celebrates God’s unquenchable love for humankind, a love that did not spare his own Son, an ominous phrase that may still disturb us.
Like Isaac, Jesus is about to be sacrificed to ratify an unbreakable covenant with God. Unlike Isaac, Jesus will not be spared by his Father. For this beloved child is himself the Lamb of God whose death will take away the sins of the world. He will bear our sins and suffer death in our stead.
In his gospel, Mark tells us that Jesus leads his three chief disciples up onto a mountain where his appearance changes. He is accompanied by two unlikely figures, long dead: Moses and Elijah, who (some scholars tell us) represent the Law and the Prophets. But here, something else is at work. They are talking to Jesus. Mark does not say what they were discussing, but Luke tells us they were talking about his departure, his Passover, “which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem” [Luke 9:31]. They were talking about his coming death. A sacrificial death.
A cloud covers the scene, and the disciples hear a voice telling them to listen to Jesus, who is the beloved Son. But listen to what? In each case, the account is preceded and followed by Jesus’ predictions of his passion and death, and here, in Mark, his resurrection.
The whole mysterious scene is set in the context of the great covenant promises of God, a covenant which was announced on the tops of mountains amid clouds, and glory, and heavenly voices that terrified their hearers. Those great figures of the past who were most identified with the mountain visions of God Almighty were Moses, who encountered the all-holy God on Horeb and Sinai, and Elijah, who seeks refuge on Mount Carmel, where God appears to him in a mysterious, whispering voice. Moses and Elijah are the great eschatological figures of the Ancient Covenant, whose own deaths are not only clouded in mystery, but according to the ancient promises were to reappear before the Day of the Lord. That Jesus appears between them has less to do with Law and Prophets than it does with Revelation: here is the final prophet, the one whose appearance inaugurates the Reign of God. Listen to him!
Jesus tells his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and there he must die. And in that death will be accomplished the inauguration of God’s reign, the salvation of the world. There is no way to glory around the mystery of suffering and death, but only through it, including the death of the innocent, even the death of children. In the death of this divine Child, all such deaths are taken up and ransomed. And we are to listen to him. What he tells us may be disturbing. But in each version of the Transfiguration, Jesus has just told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” [Mark 8:34].
Abraham listened to the voice of God and proved his faith. The disciples listened to the voice of God and learned to believe. And we, in our turn, are challenged to listen to the voice of God and transform our lives.