Roman Rite – Fourth Sunday of Lent – Year B – March 11th, 2018
2Chr 36, 14-16.19-23; Ps 137; Eph 2,4-10; Jn 3,14-21
Ex 33, 7-11a; Ps 36; 1Ts 4, 1b-12; Jn 9: 1-38b
Sunday of the Blind – Fourth of Lent
1) Contemplate Christ on the Cross.
The Lenten journey is like the exodus of the Jews who for forty years went on pilgrimage in the desert. During that long period, they were fortified by trial and lived a particular time of purification and grace. They also experienced the gift of the benevolence of the Lord who, walking in front of them as a column of smoke by day and as fire by night, led them to the Promised Land.
The Israelites were pilgrims in the desert because they believed completely in the Lord who was leading them to freedom. At a certain point, this faith failed and they complained against Yahweh. Then God punished them with the bite of poisonous snakes coming out from the sand. However, in his mercy God was moved by their tears of repentance and, above all, he listened to the trusting prayer that Moses addressed to him in favor of his countrymen. He ordered a bronze serpent to be made and placed on a stick in a high desert place so that it could be clearly visible. In such a way, all those who looked at him were immune to the venom of the true snakes raging from all sides of the desert. By doing this, the Israelites were saved from death by poisoning.
On this Sunday, the bronze serpent that the Gospel mentions invites us to reflect on Christ the Crucified Savior destined to become Risen One.
In the same way as it was ordered to Moses to raise the bronze serpent in the desert to save the Jewish people (and this became an instrument of salvation for those who were wounded by the bites of real snakes), today it is ordered to us to look to Christ lifted up on the wood of the Cross. Looking at the Crucified, Christians are saved from the poison of the spiritual serpent.
In the conversation with Nicodemus, of which today’s Gospel passage is a part, Jesus unveils the deepest meaning of his death and resurrection: the Son of man must be raised on the wood of the Cross so that he who believes in Him may have life. Therefore, if we want to save ourselves from the poisonous bites of evil, we must look to Christ who spreads love from the Cross.
Looking at the crucified Christ with eyes purified by pain, allows us to see God’s love for us and to believe in love.
Looking at the crucified Christ and following him taking our cross every day, makes us become people who love as God has loved us.
Let’s look at the Cross to let it enter not only in our eyes but also in our hearts and our lives. Let’s look at the Cross to become witnesses of the crucified Christ. When we look at it, wherever it is displayed, we are reminded of the possibility of salvation for life. The cross is there to tell us that, if we believe in the Gospel and in what Jesus did and said, our life is saved and becomes a healer for all those who are close to us.
2) The joy of the Cross
On the cross, Christ has given his life because he loves us. The contemplation of such a great love brings in our hearts a hope and a joy that nothing can tear down. A Christian can never be sad because he has met Christ, who gave his life for him. But the Cross is not only to be looked at with adoration, it is also to be embraced.
Why is it so important to embrace the Cross and why is this a source of joy? I will answer these questions with an episode from the life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. One day this saint went to visit a sick woman and told her she had to be happy because, with her suffering, she was close to Christ. The woman replied that she wanted to get away from Christ because her suffering was too acute. Mother Teresa smiled at her, embraced her and continued to treat her stinking sores. The Saint of Calcutta had well understood that saying to embrace the cross was not an exhortation to resignation like: “suffer with patience, accept, and endure the inevitable crosses of life”. Jesus does not say: “endures suffering”, but says: “Take on you the love that is a gift of oneself “, namely, capable of sharing the pain by giving oneself up to death.
We are not asked to passively suffer, but to actively take part in the passion of Christ for the world, remembering that passion is the passion of lovers. Taking the cross means “taking upon us a life that resembles his”.
What is then the cross?
For Christ, it was not the instrument of death, but of the manifestation of his “exaggerated” love. The Cross is the synthesis of the whole life of Jesus, lived for love and by love.
With Christ, the Cross becomes a synonym of love. Therefore, the sentence of Christ “Whoever wants to come behind me, must take his cross and follow me”, can be rewritten “If someone wants to come with me must take on him the yoke of love, all the love of which he is capable, and follow me “.
Of course, we will experience that love has a price: the price of the gift of self. Love also has its thorns and wounds. These do not obscure love. They purify it because it is a love that does not possess the other but exalts him and makes us happy because it is an experience of belonging and of being loved. It is in the gift of oneself that there is true joy. The Apostle Paul speaks of such joy: “I am pleased with the sufferings that I endure for you” (Col 1, 24).
This is possible if the accent is placed not so much on the fact that Christ asks us to “lose” life, but on” finding “life.
The final outcome is “finding life”, as happened to Christ with the resurrection. What Christ offers is what all men seek, in all corners of the earth and in every day that is given to them: the blossoming of life, of a life that lasts forever, of a happy and rich life, because love grows only when we give.
3) Cross, joy, and virginity.
We could compare the cross to the bed where a mother gives birth to a child. The birth pains are not an obstacle to the joy of a new mother, but they are the condition. Living the cross is giving birth. How can we fail to think of the crucified Lord who, while everything is finished (Jn 19:30), floods with love those who are under his bed of pain giving a child to a mother and a mother to a child forever? Dying on the Cross, Jesus entrusted John to his mother saying: “Woman, behold your son” (Jn 19, 26). If He did not call her by the sweet name of Mother, it was because the hour had arrived – as it comes for the souls who progress in love – to entrust her with another motherhood. Spiritual motherhood on souls; the motherhood that the Savior had promised to grant to all those who had done his divine will: “Whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven, this is for my brother, sister, and mother” (Mt 12, 50).
That was a moment of joy. Apparently, it was not, because that birth was happening in pain. In fact, that motherhood made Mary cause of our joy because the most real joy is to see the light inside the love of a Mother who accepts us as her children born from the pain of her Son. On the cross, Christ gave his life because he loves us.
In fact, true joy does not consist in having many things, but in feeling loved by the Lord, in giving himself to others and in loving each other.
The highest way to give oneself to God and to others and to love God and neighbor is that of consecrated virgins, who graft on the cross the flower of their consecration whose nourishment is the life of Christ.
The flower is a symbol dear to Santa Teresa of the Child Jesus, who uses this symbol in the manner of the Sacred Scripture to indicate at the same time the beauty and the fragility of the human being in the earthy life (cf. Mt 6: 28-30). Thus, she rejoins one of the meanings of the word flesh in the Bible. In the book of Isaiah, the symbol of the “flower of the fields” characterizes the extreme fragility and mortality of “every flesh”, confronted with the eternal stability of the “Word of God” (see Is 40: 6-8). But the great novelty of the Mystery of Jesus is precisely that the “Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14), as fragile and mortal as the flower of the fields. Saint Teresina uses the biblical symbol of the “flower of the fields” (or “little flower”) for herself, extends it to all humanity (especially in the admirable Prologue of the Manuscript A), but above all, applies it to Jesus “in the days of his flesh “(see Hebrews 5: 7), that is in all the mysteries of his terrestrial life contemplated as mysteries of lowering, of smallness and of poverty, because it is” being typical of the Love to low himself “(Ms A 2v). It is here that the Saint of Lisieux joins Saint Francis and Saint Clare of Assisi contemplating “the Love of this God, Who poor was laid in the cradle, Poor lived in this world and naked remained on the Cross” (Testament of Saint Clare of Assisi).
Saint Augustine of Hyppo (354 – 430)
Homily XXVI on John 3,12-13
“If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of Man which is in heaven.”[1.] What I have often said I shall now repeat, and shall not cease to say. What is that? It is that Jesus, when about to touch on sublime doctrines, often contains Himself by reason of the infirmity of His hearers, and dwells not for a continuance on subjects worthy of His greatness, but rather on those which partake of condescension. For the sublime and great, being but once uttered, is sufficient to establish that character, as far as we are able to hear it; but unless more lowly sayings, and such as are nigh to1 the comprehension of the hearers, were continually uttered, the more sublime would not readily take hold on a groveling listener. And therefore of the sayings of Christ more are lowly than sublime. But yet that this again may not work another mischief, by detaining the disciple here below, He does not merely set before men His inferior sayings without first telling them why He utters them; as, in fact, He has done in this place. For when He had said what He did concerning Baptism, and the Generation by grace which takes place on earth, being desirous to admit2 them to that His own mysterious and incomprehensible Generation, He holds it in suspense for a while, and admits them not, and then tells them His reason for not admitting them. What is that? It is, the dullness and infirmity of His hearers. And referring to this He added the words, “If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you of heavenly things?” so that wherever He saith anything ordinary and humble, we must attribute this to the infirmity of His audience.
The expression “earthly things,” some say is here used of the wind; that is, “If I have given you an example from earthly things, and ye did not even so believe, how shall ye be able to learn sublimer things?” And wonder not if He here call Baptism an “earthly” thing, for He calls it so, either from its being performed on earth, or so naming it in comparison with that His own most awful Generation. For though this Generation of ours is heavenly, yet compared with that true Generation which is from the Substance of the Father, it is earthly.
(He does not say, “Ye have not understood,” but, “Ye have not believed”; for when a man is ill disposed towards those things which it is possible to apprehend by the intellect, and will not readily receive them, he may justly be charged with want of understanding; but when he receives not things which cannot be apprehended by reasoning, but only by faith, the charge against him is no longer want of understanding, but unbelief. Leading him therefore away from enquiring by reasonings into what had been said, He touches him more severely by charging him with want of faith. If now we must receive our own Generation3 by faith, what do they deserve who are busy with their reasonings about that of the Only-Begotten?
But perhaps some may ask, “And if the hearers were not to believe these sayings, wherefore were they uttered?” Because though “they” believed not, those who came after would believe and profit by them. Touching him therefore very severely, Christ goes on to show that He knoweth not these things only, but others also, far more and greater than these. And this He declared by what follows, when He said, “And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of Man which is in heaven.”
“And what manner of sequel is this?”4 asks one. The very closest, and entirely in unison with what has gone before. For since Nicodemus had said, “We know that Thou art a teacher come from God,” on this very point He sets him right, all but saying, “Think Me not a teacher in such manner as were the many of the prophets who were of earth, for I have come from heaven (but) now. None of the prophets hath ascended up thither, but I dwell there.” Seest thou how even that which appears very exalted is utterly unworthy of his greatness? For not in heaven only is He, but everywhere, and He fills all things; but yet He speaks according to the infirmity of His hearer, desiring to lead him up little by little. And in this place He called not the flesh “Son of Man,” but He now named, so to speak, His entire Self from the inferior substance; indeed this is His wont, to call His whole Person5 often from His Divinity, and often from His humanity.
Jn 3,14. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”
This again seems to depend upon what has gone before, and this too has a very close connection with it. For after having spoken of the very great benefaction that had come to man by Baptism, He proceeds to mention another benefaction, which was the cause of this, and not inferior to it; namely, that by the Cross. As also Paul arguing with the Corinthians sets down these benefits together, when he says, “Was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized into the name of Paul?” for these two things most of all declare His unspeakable love, that He both suffered for His enemies, and that having died for His enemies, He freely gave to them by Baptism entire remission of their sins.[2.] But wherefore did He not say plainly, “I am about to be crucified,” instead of referring His hearers to the ancient type? First, that you may learn that old things are akin to new, and that the one are not alien to the other; next, that you may know that He came not unwillingly to His Passion; and again, besides these reasons, that you may learn that no harm arises to Him from the Fact,6 and that to many there springs from it salvation. For, that none may say, “And how is it possible that they who believe on one crucified should be saved, when he himself is holden of death?” He leads us to the ancient story. Now if the Jews, by looking to the brazen image of a serpent, escaped death, much rather will they who believe on the Crucified, with good reason enjoy a far greater benefit. For this7 takes place, not through the weakness of the Crucified, or because the Jews are stronger than He, but because “God loved the world,” therefore is His living Temple fastened to the Cross.
Jn 3,15. “That whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
Seest thou the cause of the Crucifixion, and the salvation which is by it? Seest thou the relationship of the type to the reality? there the Jews escaped death, but the temporal, here believers the eternal; there the hanging serpent healed the bites of serpents, here the Crucified Jesus cured the wounds inflicted by the spiritual8 dragon; there he who looked with his bodily eyes was healed, here he who beholds with the eyes of his understanding put off all his sins; there that which hung was brass fashioned into the likeness of a serpent, here it was the Lord’s Body, builded by the Spirit; there a serpent bit and a serpent healed, here death destroyed and a Death saved. But the snake which destroyed had venom, that which saved was free from venom; and so again was it here, for the death which slew us had sin with it, as the serpent had venom; but the Lord’s Death was free from all sin, as the brazen serpent from venom. For, saith Peter, “He did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth.” (1P 2,22). And this is what Paul also declares, “And having spoiled principalities and powers, He made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it.” (Col 2,16). For as some noble champion by lifting on high and dashing down his antagonist, renders his victory more glorious, so Christ, in the sight of all the world, cast down the adverse powers, and having healed those who were smitten in the wilderness, delivered them from all venomous beasts9 that vexed them, by being hung upon the Cross. Yet He did not say, “must hang,” but, “must be lifted up” (Ac 28,4); for He used this which seemed the milder term, on account of His hearer, and because it was proper to the type. 10
Jn 3,16. “God,” He saith, “so loved the world that He gave His Only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
What He saith, is of this kind: Marvel not that I am to be lifted up that ye may be saved, for this seemeth good to the Father, and He hath so loved you as to give His Son for slaves, and ungrateful slaves. Yet a man would not do this even for a friend, nor readily even for a righteous man; as Paul has declared when he said, “Scarcely for a righteous man will one die.” (Rm 5,7). Now he spoke at greater length, as speaking to believers, but here Christ speaks concisely, because His discourse was directed to Nicodemus, but still in a more significant manner, for each word had much significance. For by the expression, “so loved,” and that other, “God the world,” He shows the great strength of His love. Large and infinite was the interval between the two. He, the immortal, who is without beginning, the Infinite Majesty, they but dust and ashes, full of ten thousand sins, who, ungrateful, have at all times offended Him; and these He “loved.” Again, the words which He added after these are alike significant, when He saith, that “He gave His Only-begotten Son,” not a servant, not an Angel, not an Archangel. And yet no one would show such anxiety for his own child, as God did for His ungrateful servants.
His Passion then He sets before him not very openly, but rather darkly; but the advantage of the Passion He adds in a clearer manner, 11 saying, “That every one that believeth in Him. should not perish, but have everlasting life.” For when He had said, “must be lifted up,” and alluded to death, test the hearer should be made downcast by these words, forming some mere human opinions concerning Him, and supposing that His death was a ceasing to be, 12 observe how He sets this right, by saying, that He that was given was “The Son of God,” and the cause of life, of everlasting life. He who procured life for others by death, would not Himself be continually in death; for if they who believed on the Crucified perish not, much less doth He perish who is crucified. He who taketh away the destitution of others much more is He free from it; He who giveth life to others, much more to Himself doth He well forth life. Seest thou that everywhere there is need of faith? For He calls the Cross the fountain of life; which reason cannot easily allow, as the heathens now by their mocking testify. But faith which goes beyond the weakness of reasoning, may easily receive and retain it. And whence did God “so love the world”? From no other source but on]y from his goodness.[3.] Let us now be abashed at His love, let us be ashamed at the excess of His lovingkindness, since He for our sakes spared not His Only-begotten Son, yet we spare our wealth to our own injury; He for us gave His Own Son, but we for Him do not so much as despise money, nor even for ourselves. And how can these things deserve pardon? If we see a man submitting to sufferings and death for us, we set him before all others, count him among our chief friends, place in his hands all that is ours, and deem it rather his than ours, and even so do not think that we give him the return that he deserves. But towards Christ we do not preserve even this degree of right feeling. He laid down His life for us, and poured forth His precious Blood for our sakes, who were neither well-disposed nor good, while we do not pour out even our money for our own sakes, and neglect Him who died for us, when He is naked and a stranger; and who shall deliver us from the punishment that is to come? For suppose that it were not God that punishes, but that we punished ourselves; should we not give our vote against ourselves? should we not sentence ourselves to the very fire of hell, for allowing Him who laid down His life for us, to pine with hunger? But why speak I of money? had we ten thousand lives, ought we not to lay them all down for Him? and yet not even so could we do what His benefits deserve. For he who confers a benefit in the first instance, gives evident proof of his kindness, but he who has received one, whatever return he makes, he repays as a debt, and does not bestow as a favor; especially when he who did the first good turn was benefiting his enemies. And he who repays both bestows his gifts on a benefactor, and himself reaps their fruit besides. 13 But not even this induces us; more foolish are we than any, putting golden necklaces about our servants and mules and horses, and neglecting our Lord who goes about naked, and passes from door to door, and ever stands at our outlets, and stretches forth His hands to us, but often regarding Him with unpitying eye; yet these very things He undergoeth for our sake. Gladly 14 doth He hunger that thou mayest be fed; naked doth He go that He may provide for thee the materials 15 for a garment of incorruption, yet not even so do ye give up any of your own. Some of your garments are moth-eaten, others are a load to your coffers, and a needless trouble to their possessors, while He who gave you these and all else that you possess goeth naked.
But perhaps you do not lay them by in your coffers, but wear them and make yourself fine with them. And what gain you by this? Is it that the street people may see you? What then? They will not admire thee who wearest such apparel, but the man who supplies garments to the needy; so if you desire to be admired, by clothing others, you will the rather get infinite applause. Then too God as well as man shall praise thee; now none can praise, but all will grudge at thee, seeing thee with a body well arrayed, but having a neglected soul. So harlots have adornment, and their clothes are often more than usually expensive and splendid; but the adornment of the soul is with those only who live in virtue.
These things I say continually, and I will not cease to say them, not so much because I care for the poor, as because I care for your souls. For they will have some comfort, if not from you, yet from some other quarter; or even if they be not comforted, but perish by hunger, the harm to them will be no great matter. What did poverty and wasting by hunger injure Lazarus! But none can rescue you from hell, if you obtain not the help of the poor; 16 we shall say to you what was said to the rich man, who was continually broiling, yet gained no comfort. God grant that none ever hear those words, but that all may go into the bosom of Abraham; by the grace and lovingkindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom and with whom, to the Father and the Holy Ghost, be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
1 al. “touch.”
3 i.e. the new Birth).
4 i.e. how is this connected with what has gone before?
5 to; pa`n.
6 i.e. of the Passion.
7 i.e. the Crucifixion.
10 ejggu;” tou` tuvpou).
11 al. “clearly and openly.”
14 lit. “sweetly.”
16 al. “the hungry.”