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.