Happily once again we celebrate Rose Sunday – Laetare Sunday – the midpoint of the official Penitential Season of the Roman Church. Though modestly, today’s liturgy anticipates the joy of Easter. Its theme is full of the Joy of Holy Hope carried by the inner Life of the Son given us with the Dynamic Spirit of the Eternal Father.
In Cycle B, we just heard from the Second Old Testament Book of Chronicles (2 Chr 36:14-16, 19-23). In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Books One and Two form only one book. In the Greek version of the OT, the title is PARALEIPÓMENON, i.e.>ITHINGS LEFT OUT”>: historical data not found in the Books of Samuel and Kings. Second Chronicles records additional data from Israelite history during and after the return from the Babylonian Exile.
Jerusalem fell to the Babylonian Empire in the year 586 BC. Like in the Prophet Jeremiah’s warnings, the fall of Jerusalem was theologically interpreted by the Second Book of Chronicles as a punishment by God for Israel’s infidelity to the Covenant. We heard that the Babylonians “burnt the house of God, tore down the walls of Jerusalem, set its palaces on fire, and destroyed all its precious objects. Those who escaped the sword were carried away captive to Babylon, where they became servants of the king of the Chaldeans and his sons until the kingdom of the Persians came into power.”
In the light of today’s gospel reading from John 3:14-21, set in parallel with our first reading, we know the focal point is found in the second half of the O.T. text, namely, in the surprising and altogether unexpected liberation of the Jewish exiles by Cyrus, the conquering King of the Persians. Cyrus gave them New Life!
After about sixty years of exile in Babylonia (geographically modern Iraq) Cyrus the Persian, surprisingly issued and Edict of Liberation in the year 538 BC as stated earlier. So we listened to the Second Book of Chronicles say: “In the first year of Cyrus, King of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord inspired Cyrus of Persia to issue this proclamation throughout his kingdom, both by word of mouth and in writing: ‘Thus says Cyrus, King of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth have been given to me by the Lord, God of Heaven; and he also charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Therefore, whoever among you belongs to any part of his people, let him go up there [to Jerusalem], and may his God be with him? ’”
We know that many of the Jews did not return to the Holy Land until a hundred years later, under Nehemiah. But the imperial decress and the departure of the first wave of exiles were interpreted in the light of Jewish sacred history as a second EXODUS! IT IS THE SECOND GREAT INTERVENTION OF GOD IN THE HISTORY OF ISRAEL. CYRUS, THOUGH A PAGAN, WAS CONSIDERED A TYPE OF Messiah, a Savior by the Jews, the instrument of God’s special providence to “let his people go.” They were free to return to the Promised Land for the restoration of the Holy City of Jerusalem and the reconstruction of the great Temple of Monotheism on Mount Zion.
Our Responsorial Song, Palm 137, sadly sang of the captives’ memories of Jerusalem, so direly missed by the exiles. They could not forget the Holy City of God’s temple and Judah’s earlier freedom as the People of God. We prayed that psalm as though it preceded the first reading. In an inverted sort of way, it reflects the anguish of the exiles, while the reading before it expressed their great surprise and their utter Joy at the Edict of Liberation.
Now, to tie in the excerpt from the Book of Chronicles with John’s Gospel dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus:> Jesus told Nicodemus: “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.”
Here we happily recall that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is considered by New Testament writers to be the Third Great Exodus of salvation history. The Exodus from Egypt was the first dramatic intervention of God on behalf of his people. The liberation from Babylonia was the second. And the resurrection of Jesus, a corporate person - the New Adam - and the New Israel of God, is considered the third great Exodus. Jesus’ resurrection is the flip side of the one coin of the great Paschal Mystery of the death and resurrection of the Lord. The exaltation of the Lord on the cross saves all of us captive sinners who look upon him as our hope and salvation.
In the death and resurrection of Jesus we have been given LIGHT AND LIFE AND LIBERATION FOREVER. This liberation triumphs even over the grave for all believers. Greater than the liberation from Egypt, but in continuity with it; greater than the liberation from Babylonia, but in continuity with it, IS THE LIBERATION FROM THE DARKNESS OF IGNORANCE OF GOD, LIBERATION FROM SLAVERY TO SIN, AND LIBERATION FROM THE EXTINCTION OF DEATH by the utterly unique Resurrection of the Messianic Son of God.
For John and his Gospel, the definitive Intervention or EXODUS of God is that Light and Life declare: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life.” John calls this mission of Jesus “God’s Light,” a light that triumphs over darkness for those who receive it. John continues: “Whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.” Here we have already the effect of allowing Christ to become one’s personal and communal Savior and Exodus. Faith in him reaps liberation from pagan darkness and ignorance of God, a darkness that knows no hope, a darkness that squelches hope and dehydrates charity.
In his Letter to the Ephesians, Ch 2, St. Paul the Apostle celebrates the mercy of God shown to us. Because of our transgressions we were dead. But God’s mercy has intervened in Christ and brought us to life again. We have received the grace won for us by Christ, God’s gift to us. It is all free gift, all divine intervention, all initiated by God who waits for our response day by day, year by year, from natural birth to a supernatural death and rebirth in Christ, the Life of the Father communicated to us by his paschal gift of the Holy Spirit.
The gratuity of this divine intervention is underscored profoundly by Paul. He insists that we were not justified by our works but by the free gift of faith. “It is not from works, so no one may boast,” states Paul. And this gratuity is transforming if received with loving faith. For as Paul continues: “We are God’s handiwork, crafted in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.” Marvel of marvels, our good works did not merit our liberation. It was God’s good work done in Christ our Savior that spawned faith in us. And God’s gift of faith in Christ has prepared in us a response to God the Giver. For God’s gift establishes the willing recipient in the good works he gives as a sign of life in him. To repeat Paul’s words: “We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in [those works].” This Pauline declaration should serve as a mantra of gratitude for the children of God who recognize his freeing Grace.
Today we renew our insertion into our belonging to the great Judeo-Christian Tradition. That tradition confesses the fidelity of God’s love for his people. His interventions in history again and again have shown his ‘hesed’ and ‘emet’ - his ‘faithful love’. You and I were already present in a mystical way when Israel passed dry shod through the Red Sea around the year 1290 BC. You and I were already present by spiritual affinity when the Jews came back from Babylon to Jerusalem in and after the year 538 BC. The reason we can say we were there is that those interventions were our own salvation history moving towards the great Intervention of all interventions —> the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As the only divine Son, hidden in the bosom of the eternal Father, Jesus the Word was present as God led his people to freedom of old. Now incarnate and manifested as one of us, Jesus has become our New Moses, our New Cyrus, our new Liberator who brings us into the Light and Life of the truth. He has been exalted so as to lift us up to a grace-filled meaning in life, in death, and after death.
So, we prepare well for Easter by a sincere Lent. For Jesus is our Exodus and sure Hope. He is our rose-hued joy and celebration. He has set us free. He has been lifted up so as to “lift us up on eagel wings”. And to conclude:> as the New Jerusalem in Christ our Head, we pass in a few minutes into the Eucharistic mystery with today’s entrance antiphon resounding in our hearts ~
“Rejoice, Jerusalem! Be glad for her; you who love her.
Rejoice with her, you who mourned for her, [for]
you will find contentment at her consoling breasts.” Amen.
A homily written by Fr. Sam Anthony Morello, OCD