Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B, March 14, 2021
A historical writer gives a summary of Judah's fall from greatness, its exile in Babylon, and their causes. His hope for the people is that they'll return to worship in fidelity.
The letter to the Ephesians was written by a Jewish Christian convert, to Gentile Christian converts. It asserts that God's plan was always to save all people. Like other writings of Saint Paul, this letter insists that salvation is God's free gift in Christ, not earned by good works.
Some early followers of Jesus were somewhat tentative, easily dissuaded from Christianity by any threat of persecution. Saint John's gospel aims to put the choice before them in very stark terms.
Our Liturgical Setting: Today's gospel, John 3:14-21, contains, among other things, this lament: "The light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light." Resonating with this in the first reading, we find "But they mocked the messengers of God, despised his warnings, and scoffed at his prophets, ..."
The Historical Situation: Scholars call the anonymous author of this book the Chronicler. He writes, well after the facts, of the period from 1030 BCE to 550 BCE, from the reign of Israel's first king, Saul, to the end of Judah's exile in Babylon. He knows that there will never again be a powerful Jewish state on the world stage, and the people cannot again attach their identity to an exalted nationalism. If they are to keep their identity, it has to be in religious terms alone, in allegiance to the God of their ancestors, and, as much as practically possible, by practice of the rituals of their predecessors, focused on a renewal of worship in the Jerusalem temple.
Today's reading begins, pivots and ends with references to that temple. (Further, 2 Chronicles ends with verse 36:23, but the very next book, Ezra (originally continuous with 1 & 2 Chronicles, and the book of Nehemiah), begins with Cyrus sending the exiles home and specifying "Let every [exile] who has survived, in whatever place he may have dwelt, be assisted by the people of that place with silver, gold, goods, and cattle, together with free-will offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem."
So taken as a whole, between these "bookends," the passage is about how the people's infidelities caused them to lose the temple and their homeland, and how God arranged, through the pagan king of Persia, no less, for them to "retrieve their lost sabbaths." It's a short, sad summary of a long period, with a hopeful ending. And it's told with a definite point-of-view, the conviction that right worship will restore the people.
Proclaiming It: So how shall you read this aloud to the congregation? For one thing, in view of the Chronicler's hope that restored worship will restore the people, emphasize the references to the temple. In the New American Bible translation used in most Catholic churches in the U.S.A., those are:
Then recite the Cyrus paragraph differently. Make the people sit up and take notice. For God to use a pagan king this way is simply unheard of. It reveals something about the scope of God's power and plan that Judah just couldn't anticipate. These people had done everything in their power to disappoint God and annul their covenant. Yet God's desire to maintain and renew the covenant will not be thwarted, even if it means employing a pagan king. Let the astonishment be heard in your voice. Of course, for the Chronicler the point is Cyrus' conviction that God has "charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah."
The Theological Background: If you understand the first reading, you're over half way to understanding the second. Paul is saying that, on our own, we deserve nothing from God, but that God chose to love, save and give life to us in Christ anyway. And the "us" includes both Jewish and Gentile Christians, treated together in these sentences (and distinctly in other parts of the letter), for in their own ways both groups were alienated from God and saved only by God's grace.
Proclaiming It: The first sentence is quite a mouthful. Read it to yourself over and over, until you understand its complicated structure. With numerous extra clauses, it says God did three things for one purpose. The three things are:
In proclaiming this you'll do well to make it sound like more separate sentences, each manageably shorter, than the punctuation in our text suggests.
In the second half, Paul contrasts what we can achieve spiritually on our own (nothing) and what God gives us as undeserved grace (everything). Notice the several ways Paul states this theme. In each of those statements, make the contrasts heard.
Moshe Lilien, On the Rivers of Babylon (detail), 1910. Cf. the first paragraph of today's responsorial psalm, Psalm 37. Click here for how to buy a 34x60 cm signed print, and to see a larger version.
The gallery MutualArt (cited above), says of the artist, "Moshe Lilien was a Polish visual artist who was born in 1874. Moshe Lilien has had several gallery and museum exhibitions, including at The Israel Museum, Jerusalem and at the The Jerusalem Artists' House. Several works by the artist have been sold at auction, including 'At the library' sold at Bonhams New Bond Street 'Israeli Art and Judaica' in 2012 for $7,976. There have been many articles about Moshe Lilien, including 'Yemenite history in black and white' written by Barry Davis for Jerusalem Post in 2012. The artist died in 1925."
This page updated February 6, 2021