Two men very different from each other set the stage for God’s message to us today, Laetare Sunday. Both good men, one lived more than 500 years before Christ and the other his contemporary. In the time of Jeremiah. There were constant battles that crossed through and took over the lands of the Chosen People. Their kings tried to outsmart stronger kings and, in the history books, you can see the dark periods and the brief bright ones. Jeremiah was a very public leader and well known in Jerusalem. He did not see things in terms of human power politics. He saw history as the unfolding of God’s plan for his chosen [people. He reminds us as he did his people then that we should seek God’s plan in the midst of a world today that is so similar to our own.
That is not always easy because we are always tempted to look for an insider’s answer, a quick fix. We want a special relationship that takes care of me and those I want God to favor. Nicodemus was like that. Enter Nicodemus! He came in the dead of night. He wanted a special relation to Jesus that would protect him. He wanted Jesus on his own terms. I often think that there is a little bit of a Nicodemus in everyone of us! I sense in every human heart there is some doubt, some need for reassurance, some desire to give the slip to the rest of the world and come in the night to get a special word from Jesus just for me, a special moment when he responds to my needs and mine only. This is the first but will not be the last time we see Nicodemus. Each time he gets a little better because Jesus knows him as he knows us and challenges him, helps him along which is what today he is doing for us. Jesus wants him and us to go beyond ourselves to understand that Jesus did not come for me alone, does not love me alone and did not respond to the Father’s will to save me alone, precious as I may be to…ME.
The Jewish Christian community of the first century where John lived and wrote would have understood this immediately. We are in the same place today. Jesus speaks of being lifted up in a very literal sense. He will be. But to be lifted up means a lot more: it means that Jesus fulfills his mission because being lifted up on the cross is the only way that He will be exalted. He will be made visible as to who he is. He will express in his bodily lifting up on the cross how it is that God wants him to be known and understood, seen and embraced, believed upon and thus the giver of eternal life. .Behind this mystery of exaltation by death lives the saving love of the Father who so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes…may have eternal life.
This is not a message to be whispered in the darkness of a special elitism or a self referential Pharisee. It is God’s definitive Word for all humankind. And it is meant to be shouted from the rooftops and celebrated in the community and broadcast to the world!
There is light shining from the cross. There is truth. There is love, love for each person and all humankind pouring out from his wounded body. This is the ultimate reason why and how love conquers hatred and violence, defeating evil by a good so great that you and I and all who come into the light, all who believe in Him might not perish but might have eternal life. Here is the answer Nicodemus could not quite grasp. God loves the world. He loves us. And that love is the source of true happiness that lives in us in good times or bad, in times of joy and times of suffering, in our senior years as in our more youthful days. St. Augustine commenting on this says He who gave you happiness in this world gave it to you for your consolation, not for your corruption. So too he who scourges you in this world does so for your correction, not your condemnation. Jesus did not come to condemn but to save. Rightly we call him Savior of the world!
Yesterday in the context of celebrating the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, Pope Francis both confessed his sins to a priest and heard the confessions of others. And then he proclaimed a Jubilee Year of Mercy for the whole Church. What a wondrous gift he has given us! The immensity of God’s love is found and experienced through his mercy. The mercy of God has been proclaimed in our day by both St. John Paul II and Pope Francis. There is a straight line from St John Paul’s letter, Dives in Misericordia to yesterday call by Pope Francis to live a Jubilee year of Mercy. I strongly recommend that we all re-read John Paul’s letter to prepare ourselves to liver the coming Jubilee year.
That straight line stretches back to Paul’s letter: God who is rich in mercy…brought us to life with Christ…raised us up with him so that in the ages to come, He might show us the immeasurable riches of his grace…This is not from you or me, and is not meant for a special group or an elitist minority. It is a gift from God…For we are HIS handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to fulfill the good works and live in him.
Herein lies the truth of the Gospel and the way of life for us who are not just admirers of Jesus but disciples, followers of Jesus. In a world of anger and violence, in a world of hedonism and exploitation, you and I must be witnesses of God’s love poured out from the cross of Jesus Christ. Following the example of Pope Francis we turn first to the sacrament of penance as we prepare for the Holy Days leading to Easter. Refreshed and made free by that sacrament, our lives must be the counterbalance to all that dark, all that is evil in the world. and show the world by our words and actions that His love is working in us and through us to repair the world. That kind of fervent love reaches out to the weak and the poor, the infirm and the marginalized, the forgotten and the most vulnerable.
May the Lord who called you out of darkness into his own marvelous light continue to inspire you, guide you and bless your coming in and going out till we all achieve the fullness of life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen