Even when humanity rejects the saving help God offers it, He still guides it as a Father, pouring out His goodness whether in warning and punishment or in forgiveness.
Gospel – 4th Sunday of Lent (Lætare Sunday) – Year B
Jesus said to Nicodemus: 14 “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life. 16 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.17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 18 Whoever believes in Him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. 21 But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God” (Jn 3:14-21).
I – A Joyful Interlude during Lent
According to the Church’s age-old tradition, the Fourth Sunday of Lent, known as Lætare Sunday, is a joyful interlude in the midst of the penitential atmosphere proper to this liturgical period, and is celebrated with rose-coloured vestments, musical instruments and flowers on the altar. The note of joy appears at the very beginning of the Mass, with the entrance antiphon, whence arose the name given to the day: “Lætare, Ierusalem! – Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her. Be joyful, all who were in mourning; exult and be satisfied at her consoling breast” (Is 66:10-11).
Thus, at the midpoint between the beginning and end of Lent, the faithful are invited to take a break from mortification and from the consideration of their faults, in order to recover their strength and to move forward, to accompany the Lord’s Passion and to share in the joy of the Resurrection.
In former times this day was also called Rose Sunday, due to a custom dating back to the time of Pope St. Leo IX, in the 11th century. Following a special rite for the occasion, the Pontiff would bless a golden rose, symbolizing the spiritual springtime opened to humanity by the coming Easter, and would award it to a public figure or to a notable shrine. Although the importance of this ceremony has diminished over the course of history, it is still performed, and the offering of the Golden Rose to personalities or sanctuaries is a relatively frequent occurrence.
As concerns the movable part of the Liturgy, the inspired combination of texts presents us with a picture in which everything speaks of joy, because everything speaks of mercy.
The God of compassion is also inflamed with anger
The first reading (2 Chr 36:14-16, 19-23), taken from the Second Book of Chronicles, summarizes decades of Israelite history in a few paragraphs. Leaving aside concrete details, the chronicler focuses on events from a theological perspective, describing the Lord’s relationship with His people in the light of the admonitions which He sent them “early and often” (36:15) through the prophets. The account of the disasters that befell the Jews illustrates how the Most High reserves certain moments to punish a rebellious nation, just as He punishes individuals.
In this sense, one detail of the text calls our attention: the sacred author mentions in the first place “all the princes of Judah, the priests” (36:14), since they were the ones primarily responsible for the infidelities of the others. In fact, those chosen and instituted by God to be His intermediaries with the people have the duty to sustain souls on the good path, above all as models of holiness. Undoubtedly, if the religious authorities of Israel had been lovers of virtue and had supported the prophets, the power of their example would have convinced a good part of those people to obediently accept God’s voice. But as things stood, there was full complicity between the spiritual leaders and the people, both in the desecration of the Temple and in the contempt shown to the Lord’s messengers.
Now, when evil succeeds in corrupting and winning over those who should be the leaders of a society, it becomes impossible to move souls without extraordinary supernatural help. The Almighty is then filled with wrath, as the chronicler continues: “the anger of the Lord against His people was so inflamed that there was no remedy” (36:16). The God of benevolence, charity and compassion manifests His anger in the manner of a father who, after warning his son over a long period of time without any result, decides to correct him with a punishment. Nebuchadnezzar’s army invades Jerusalem, destroys the Sanctuary and devastates the city, carrying captive to Babylon all those who escaped his sword (cf. 2 Chr 36:19-20).
In the Responsorial Psalm (Ps 137:1-6), we encounter the lamentations of the Israelites during the decades spent in exile. They, who had offended God by “practicing all the abominations of the nations” (2 Chr 36:14), receive a penalty commensurate with the offence committed, being forced to live as slaves in a pagan country. But at last, they who had been deaf to the Lord’s appeals to them through the prophets, now hear Him by means of punishment. An unmistakable sign of their openness to the action of grace is shown in the fondness with which they recall Zion, to the point of weeping with longing (cf. Ps 137:1).
God never wants evil. In allowing tragic situations in which we experience first-hand the effects of our crimes, His objective is to correct and save us, for He “is rich in mercy” (Eph 2:4), as St. Paul proclaims in the second reading (Eph 2:4-10). When we give ourselves over to sin, we tend to turn away from God, as did Adam and Eve in Paradise, who “hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Gn 3:8). This propensity to flee from the Creator shows itself repeatedly throughout history, and for this reason it is always He who takes the initiative to free us from our passions and caprices, drawing us back to himself.
Let us contemplate today’s Gospel, a perfect theological treatise on the Redemption, against the backdrop of this wonderful panorama of the manifestations of divine love.
II – God Wishes to Save Everyone, But not Everyone Wishes to Be Saved
The famous nocturnal conversation, situated by St. John in the first year of Our Lord’s public life, deals with truths that we readily believe today. At that time, however, they meant an extraordinary opening of horizons. For Nicodemus, a man of solid Pharisaic training and profound knowledge of the Scriptures, such revelations were astonishing and demanded a generous faith.
We do not know who told the Beloved Disciple the story of this meeting. It may have been Jesus himself or the Blessed Virgin Mary, who would certainly have heard it from her Son. The Evangelist records the whole sequence of the dialogue in general lines, composing a narrative that we read in a few minutes. However, we may suppose that a conversation of such importance would have lasted at least two hours. It would no doubt have been more abundant in terms, as well as, perhaps, in questions from the Pharisee and reproaches from Jesus.
We can imagine the scene unfolding within an atmosphere of great kindness. In spite of the late hour, the Saviour spared no effort to enlighten the mind of that “ruler of the Jews” (Jn 3:1), and the latter, for his part, listened to everything with an enthusiasm that was caused by the love that Jesus himself, as God, had borne for him from all eternity.
The Lord prepares His children for great events
Jesus said to Nicodemus: 14 “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up …”
Our Lord recalls the crossing of the desert towards the Promised Land, an episode familiar to every Jew, mentioning the occasion when the people murmured “against God and against Moses” (Nm 21:5) and received as punishment “fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died” (Nm 21:6). When the Israelites finally repented, the Lord did not eliminate the serpents as they requested, but ordered Moses to affix a bronze serpent to a pole, declaring: “every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live” (Nm 21:8).
It is not difficult to calculate the uproar produced in the camp of thousands of families when someone was bitten and had to run to Moses. In addition to making them understand the value of a prophet’s mediation, God proceeded thus out of mercy, wishing to reveal, in the midst of that situation of misery and rebellion, a sign of Redemption. As the Book of Wisdom teaches, “he who turned toward it was saved, not by what he saw, but by Thee, the Saviour of all” (16:7).
Here we reap an important lesson: God prepares everything in advance and educates us constantly, offering examples, metaphors and prefigures of what will happen in the future, whether in the line of punishments for the world or in the line of great works by the good. Therefore, we should accept with a supernatural attitude whatever befalls us, seeking to discern in each circumstance the guidance He has given concerning the future.
In this sense, the serpent raised up in the desert as a symbol and instrument of healing for the wayfarers also opened up, for those who would live with the Redeemer and those who would later follow Him, the possibility of contemplating the work of salvation from a more comprehensive perspective.
An indispensable factor to attain salvation: faith
15 “…so that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.”
In writing his Gospel, St. John’s aim was to refute the heresies that were rampant at the time, and to this end he strove to emphasize the union of two natures, the human and the divine, in Our Lord Jesus Christ. For this purpose, he made use of the case of Nicodemus as paradigmatic of the difficulties of many Jews who, clinging to reason, were reluctant to accept a God who had become incarnate and died on the Cross, and he presented the new things revealed to the good Pharisee as a perfect demonstration of this sublime truth of faith.
If we compare this conversation with the one which Jesus would have with the Samaritan woman shortly afterwards (cf. Jn 4:1-42), we will see that the dialogue that took place at Jacob’s well was much more lively and marked by enchantment, and that the woman’s conversion was much quicker. Among other reasons, this can be explained by the fact that this woman did not harbour the objections of those who possess vast knowledge and want to attain with their intelligence alone what only faith can grasp.
Thus, in speaking with Nicodemus, Our Lord stresses the need to believe in order to be saved, making it clear that the conquest of eternal life is not a matter of effort or intellectual capacity, but depends on each person’s faith convictions before the mystery of the Cross.
God loves radically
16 “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.17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”
This very beautiful passage gives us an idea of God’s radical love for mankind, to the point of sending his Only-begotten Son into the world, who is himself a model of radicality for us. A drop of Blood, a simple blink of an eye or a gesture offered to the Father as reparation would have been enough to consummate the Redemption, since the smallest act of the God-Man has infinite value. Nevertheless, Our Lord wanted to give himself entirely. In the Passion, as Isaiah prophesied, “His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance” (52:14).
Here we may make a personal application: when we commit a fault, we sometimes feel that we are not loved by God. This is an impression of preternatural origin, contrary to the revelation made by the Divine Master. Such is His love that He would undergo the crucifixion to take just one soul to Heaven!
It also follows from these verses that God offers men all the necessary aids to avoid their condemnation, but many reject this help, becoming culpable for their own perdition.
Faith demands works
18 “Whoever believes in Him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
Believing does not mean passively accepting a set of truths without concrete implications for our particular life. In the words of St. James, “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (Jas 2:17). Those who believe must draw up a plan for Christian life in order to imitate Our Lord, adapting their mentality, intelligence, will and sensibilities to Him, constantly seeking to progress in this union. If faith moves mountains (cf. Mt 21:21), it also produces extraordinary effects – and much more! – in the soul that possesses it, giving it the necessary energy for all kinds of good works.
On the other hand, this categorical affirmation of Jesus underlines the idea of Jesus as a rock of scandal and a divider, in the face of which men must choose Heaven or hell. The subsequent statements continue in the same vein and can be described as the most cogent in St. John’s Gospel on the opposition between light and darkness. This opposition is not exactly a struggle, which occurs when there is a confrontation and resistance between two forces. Such is not the case with light and darkness: when light is present, darkness disappears.
Light or darkness
19 “And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil.”
God, “the true light that enlightens every man” (Jn 1:9), is Goodness. Evil, on the other hand, exists only in those who turn away from Him or rise up against Him; it consists, therefore, in the absence of good.
When a person follows a path contrary to what is good, true and beautiful, he turns away from the light and enters into darkness. And this happens even to persons highly endowed with intellectual light. Indeed, demons and reprobates retain their intelligence in hell, for it is a natural light, quite different from the light par excellence of which Our Lord speaks, capable of penetrating to the depths of our souls, leading us to understand something regarding God.
20 “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. 21But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.”
Here is a dreadful constant in souls given over to sin: an aversion to everything that reminds them of rectitude and virtue, especially those who, being more advanced on the path of holiness, reflect with greater intensity the Light that is God. How often we perceive that someone is not doing well by the resentment he bears towards a good person!
In fact, no one adheres to evil, to error and to ugliness as such. When a person wants to prevaricate, he needs to construct a doctrine to justify his bad conduct. If he approaches the light, this rationalization will fall to the ground. It is similar to someone who, on entering a party, notices a stain on his own clothes and tries not to stand in the light so that others will not perceive the problem.
If, on the other hand, one has integrity and a desire to conform oneself to God, nothing causes more joy than having contact with those who have loved the Light so much that they have themselves become light for others.
III – Which Path Will We Choose?
This is the wonderful teaching of this Sunday of Joy. Throughout Lent, we have been considering, day after day, the horror of our own miseries, and suddenly an opening appears in those dark clouds, allowing the rays of mercy to descend upon us and fill us with hope. The latter is based on a gratuitous gift of God, as St. Paul affirms in the second reading: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph 2:8-9).
Nevertheless, we see how far mankind is from this true joy! Happiness is not to be found on the paths that lead away from God – trodden by the Chosen People in the first reading – whose end is the “Babylon” of sin and divine punishment. If “every one who commits sin is a slave to sin” (Jn 8:34), whoever embarks on this path becomes a prisoner of a “Nebuchadnezzar” who is much worse than the historical tyrant: the devil, who hates God and His work, and therefore wants the condemnation of men.
God forbid that we should follow the paths of this slavery! On the contrary, may the Lord grant us the grace to choose the paths of freedom, serving Him, the source of the one true joy. And we will only obtain this joy after enduring the hardships of life, giving of ourselves entirely and without looking back. This was the way of all the Saints, of Our Lady and of Our Lord Jesus Christ himself, in whose Body not a single drop of blood was left.
May Mary most holy obtain for us, through her omnipotent intercession before Jesus, the joy of being children of the Church, and therefore immensely loved and forgiven, provided we acknowledge our faults with sorrow and place them confidently on the glowing coals of divine love. In this way, the Most Precious Blood of Christ and the extraordinarily holy tears of Our Lady will be poured out upon our souls, giving them a fragrance pleasing to God. ◊