Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

March 14, 2021
St. Patrick Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas

2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23
Psalm 137:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6
Ephesians 2:4-10
John 3:14-21

The author of the Book of Chronicles tries to make sense of his people’s past. Despite Israel’s unfaithfulness, God patiently endured their transgressions and sins. He often sent prophets to call them to repentance, but the people disregarded the message and mistreated the messengers. Finally, God delivered the Israelites into the hands of the Chaldeans who slaughtered young and old, burned the Temple, and destroyed Jerusalem. Those who were left alive became slaves in Babylon.

After about 70 years, the Persians came into power, and their king, Cyrus, was an astute and clever leader. One of his policies was to respect the religious beliefs and practices of the nations he conquered. Claiming that he had been commissioned by the Lord, he released the Jews from captivity to restore their Temple in Jerusalem. The author of Chronicles sees the hand of God at work in Cyrus. God is patient and not indifferent. God is moved by compassion not by revenge.

The Gospel records part of the conversation of Jesus with Nicodemus, a Pharisee of high position. Their conversations begin at night under the cover of darkness but end just before the light. Nicodemus is convinced that Jesus is from God because of the good works of healing and integrity that Jesus performs. He sees Jesus as a wise teacher and a compassionate man, but he cannot accept that Jesus is the Son of God, the Christ. “How can a man be born again?”

So, being aware of his public image, Nicodemus wanted to avoid being seen with Jesus. But when Jesus was condemned to death, Nicodemus defended him publicly in the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jews. Nicodemus was also the one who gave the myrrh needed for Jesus’ burial, no doubt much more than the Magi had brought the baby Jesus. Myrrh is a gift befitting the worship of God. At the death of Jesus, Nicodemus comes to the light of faith that Jesus is God. Nicodemus is born again.

The darkness in which Nicodemus comes to Jesus is the darkness of sin and the darkness of ignorance, error, and fear that is caused by sin. The darkness of the weakened human mind can only lead us to see Jesus as a wise philosopher and a compassionate healer, but the light of faith that we receive and begin to grow into at our Baptism leads us to recognize Him fully as the Son of God. The darkness of the weakened will can only bring us to good intentions and best wishes, but the light of faith is the only way for us to receive hope and the courage change our ways of sinning by releasing our preference for our sins and letting go of our indifference to the love of God, fully expressed in the sacrifice of His own Son. As we read today in the Letter of Saint Paul to the Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.”

In their conversation, Jesus reminds Nicodemus of the bronze serpent Moses had made at God’s direction. A glance at this bronze serpent, which Moses put on a pole and lifted over the heads of the people, healed those who had been bitten by venomous snakes. Nicodemus knew about this event but would hardly have known through his own wisdom that Jesus was predicting His own death when He would be lifted up on the cross. Jesus further talks about the indescribable love of the Father who sent His own Son as a light to save the world and not to condemn the world. Jesus reminds the man who had come to Him under the cover of darkness that we humans seem to prefer darkness to the light. It is very comfortable for us to be indifferent to the darkness and come to fear the light. The darkness of sin mars our human nature and obscures our true identity as God’s children through blackmail and shame. The light not only shows others, but also us, who we really are and who Christ has made us to become: loved sinners redeemed by His sacrifice and love.

The author of the Book of Chronicles explains the sufferings of the Israelites as punishment for their sins, but is God vengeful? Jesus offers us an alternative explanation: God does not punish us for our sins but sends His Son to save us. Sin is the greatest punishment for sin. No doubt we deserve punishment for our sins as the Chronicler realized, but the Gospel does not speak of that. Instead, it challenges us to change our hearts and live in the light. Like Nicodemus, we must decide when we have had enough darkness and are ready to receive the light and enter into it.

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