DOWN BUT LIFTED UP; DEAD BUT BROUGHT BACK TO LIFE
Sunday Morning Worship / Gospel Reflection /
4th Sunday of Lent Year B March 22, 2009
It was the lowest point in the history of the chosen people of God! Worse than the situation they were in, there was none… being on exile, being far from the land promised to their forefathers, far from the temple, far from what they have gotten used to, far from the familiar sights and sounds of home, far from the security that comes from the knowledge that what one does is never foreign, never strange to anybody around him or her. The chosen people of God were down in the depths of communal humiliation and suffering… at Babylon, where the purity of their faith could not find perfect expression. “By the rivers of Babylon, there they sat and wept, on the poplars that grew there, there they hung up their harps.” On top of all this, Jerusalem, the holy city was left in ruins, destroyed by the gentile conquerors. The Israelites, for all intents and purposes, were “pitched past pitch of grief”… They were down and out… like as if there were no more hope, no more chance, no more possibility to get up. Unable to sing, and finding no reason to sing at all, the Israelites were down in the depths of communal grief.
But, “through no merit of their own,” God takes up once more the cudgels for His beloved people and shows His saving power in extraordinary ways. God raises up Cyrus, whose selfless edict gives God’s people a new possibility to get up, and go, and glow with newfound faith and enthusiasm to rebuild a life altogether new, all together anew, back in the land where they were originally led by Moses and Aaron, a land promised yet by God, back to the time of Abraham, their father in faith.
God, we are once more reminded, is not one who would renege on His promises. God, a Savior par excellence, is shown today as one whose love never tarnishes, never wanes, never dies, and never is taken back, despite the sinfulness and the repeated falls of His chosen people.
Our own little stories are a proof of the same never-ending love of a forgiving God. From the dark corners of our hearts that conceal the depths of our repeated falls into sin, our own brand of infidelity upon infidelity, our all-too-familiar indiscretions and excesses, our sins both by defect and by excess, sins of commission and omission, - sins, plain and simple … we all can weave a story that runs along the lines of the history of God’s chosen people – a history of sin, forgiveness, election, defection, promise, fulfillment, covenant, infidelity, mercy and reinstatement in God’s love… the cycle continues in our lives. The Bible is Israel’s story as much as ours, with the same basic convergent themes that form the warp and woof of the tapestry of our human lives.
“We all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God!” (Romans 3:23)
Basic acceptance of this reality is what today’s liturgy, among others, would have us do. It calls on us to come to terms with our own personal history of sin. But lest we miss it, the liturgy also calls on us to hold on to the on-going drama of our Christian lives, where the stamp of God’s forgiveness and love ought never to make us remain down in the dumps of hopelessness and interior sadness of heart.
Through no merits of our own, St. Paul reminds us, on account of God’s kindness to us in Christ Jesus, we are raised to new life. “But 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." (Eph 2:4-6)
We are sorely in need these days of some moral upliftment from what ought to be Good News to all women and men, now a lot more dehumanized on account of the raging war in Iraq and the culture of terrorism all over the world. We need to be reminded that “all things work for the good for all those who love God.” (Romans 8:28). Raised…lifted up…exalted… this is what the readings today, especially the Gospel, reminds us. Salvation assumes a very graphic and concrete representation for all of us, today, which is meant to be a joyful Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday). And this assurance of salvation comes by way of a promise – that “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. (Jn 3:14-16)
Jesus very literally allowed himself to be lifted up on the cross. His exaltation on the cross spelled salvation for us. His being nailed and transfixed on a tree now stands behind our own exaltation in the grace and love of forgiveness.
Humanity is down once again, made less human by the culture of death, as shown by the ease with which it goes into war. Humanity’s dignity is lessened once more by a pervading culture of terrorism and violence. The spiral of violence has taken a number of nations and groups – sadly, even groups who ostensibly quote religion and even God – and has hijacked their faith and manipulated the same, leading them to do things that even a nominal definition and the flimsiest attachment to the same God would never have allowed, nor condoned. Sinful humanity has once more, for the nth time, gone so low and embraced the depths of depravity and social sinfulness.
The liturgy today calls on all women and men of good will – Christians and Muslims alike – to allow themselves to be lifted up from the miry depths of selfishness and impulsive vengefulness. And this, it does, by offering a clear example – that of Christ, nailed unjustly on the cross; that of Christ, lifted up on the wood of the cross, dying an ignominious and undeserved death, laying down his life of his own free will, so that we might live! “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father.” (Jn 10:18)
The key word in all this is “allow.” Human beings as we are, enveloped in a whole lot of pride and a mistaken and misguided sense of self-sufficiency, made even worse by our fallen human nature prone to sin, we always think that solutions to problems always should emanate from our finite powers. We have often arrogated to ourselves powers and marvels that are beyond us. We think that wars, and the might that is needed to wage them, are enough to solve problems among nations and peoples. We often believe that human efforts alone would suffice to solve problems. In our linear, cause and effect mode of thinking, we falsely believe that all it takes to eradicate an “effect” is an act of surgically removing the “cause” of that same effect. We think that human effort alone, unilaterally done, would solve one problem after another.
History, both sacred and secular, does not support such a position. Human nature being complex, and human beings being free and autonomous individuals, there is simply no sure-fire solution to problems that are external to the persons involved in those problems. We must go within the depths of the person. We must go interior. We ought to go to the root of human freedom, that area of our personhood where the mystery of freedom, that is capable of both good and evil, resides. “There in your heart is your small commonweal. There, rid the dragons; root out there the sin.” (Hopkins).
All this is to say that our finite human freedom is supposed to be subservient to the only absolute freedom that exists – God’s freedom! Human freedom is only relative. Being relative, it is subservient to God’s own absolute freedom and will. Hence the need for us to allow ourselves to be lifted up, like Christ. No one lay his life down for him. He did so of his own volition. He willingly surrendered himself to death, even death on a cross, for our salvation.
Down, we were, but lifted up on his account. Dead and buried, but raised up and brought to life in Christ! This is a story worth recounting in these times of great insecurity, fear and uncertainty. Laetare! Rejoice! The Kingdom of God is at hand!