Fourth Sunday of Lent – Year B

Parish of St. Ignatius of Loyola; Chestnut Hill, MA
15 March 2015; 5:30 p.m. mass
Fourth Sunday of Lent – Year B
2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23; Psalm 137:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21
Today is the Fourth Sunday of Lent, which, traditionally,
goes by the name Laetare Sunday.
“Laetare” is a Latin word, which, loosely translated, means,
“Is that guy wearing a pink robe?”
And the answer to that question is “No,”
as I have been told here at St. Ignatius several times.
The color of this vestment is “dusty rose.”
“Dusty rose” is an English term, which,
loosely translated, means “pink.”
Of course, “Laetare” actually means, “Rejoice,” as in,
“Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her” (Is. 66:10), words from the Book of Isaiah,
words that we would have heard at the start of this very liturgy,
had our wonderful music ministers not been present.
It is no coincidence that the church gives us this Sunday of rejoicing at the midpoint of Lent,
nor is it a fluke that she does something similar
at the midpoint of Advent with Gaudete Sunday.
Think of these occasions as halftime, as rest stops on the journey,
places to refuel, to recharge your interior cell phone battery
for the final stretch before Christmas, with Advent,
or now, in Lent, before Easter.
The tone of the day, as its name suggests, is joyful, happy,
kind of a pick-me-up from what can be the doom and gloom
of Lenten fasting and self-abnegation.
Whoever organized the lectionary, the set of readings we just heard,
appears not to have gotten that message.
We began today with the final chapter of the Second Book of Chronicles,
the only time we ever hear from that book during
the entire three-year Sunday cycle of readings.
The author of that book, known by the not-so-creative name “the Chronicler,”
tells us of the Exile, that part of Israel’s history when
our mothers and fathers in faith were carted off to Babylon,
were forced to leave behind the Promised Land, the Temple,
everything they knew.
Today’s reading suggests that God had given Israel countless opportunities
to avoid this fate, to repent and change their ways, but, eventually, as we just heard,
“The LORD’s anger against his people blazed up beyond remedy” (2 Chron. 36:16).
Not a very Laetare-y message.
The same goes for the selection we heard from the Gospel according to John.
Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about how the Son of Man would need to be lifted up,
what for us is an obvious reference to the cross.
But for Nicodemus, who did not have a copy of the New Testament on hand,
the only image this conjured was from a story in the Book of Numbers,
in which countless snakes with apparently fatal venom
attacked Israel (cf., Num. 21:4-9).
Either way – crucifixion, deadly snakes –
not a whole lot of rejoicing here.
So why are these readings good news for us this week?
Or even more specifically, why is their good news joyful news for us
on Laetare Sunday?
If I had to give it a name, I would say that the good news, the joyful news,
is Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ who is alive.
Admittedly, this is not a daring thesis on my part,
but I think it is precisely what the readings want to tell us today,
especially when, liturgically, the dusty rose of Laetare Sunday,
the violet of Lent, and, soon, the red of Good Friday,
are preparing us to remember Jesus’ death.
It begins with the Chronicler, who, as I suggested before,
paints a picture of a really faithful God, but a God who, nevertheless,
can get fed up at points, who can say, “Enough,” and walk away,
even if that leads to the horrors of the Exile.
The Chronicler is on to something.
At least I know that I have thought this about God before;
I am guessing that you have thought this about God before; and
I am confident that Jesus thought this about God as well,
or at least this is how I hear his cry from the cross,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46; Mk. 15:34).
So much of the literature of Israel fleshes out this feeling that God has gone on holiday,
often right at the moment when we seem to need God most.
But the gospel reading claims that there is more to the story than this perception.
To be clear, lots of parts of the Hebrew Bible do the very same thing,
thus rendering meaningless, though still dangerous, the false dichotomy of
the “God of the Old Testament” and the “God of the New Testament.”
Today, however, it is John who tells us about God’s everlasting fidelity
by reminding us that Christ did not come in order “to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him” (Jn. 3:17).
Indeed, “the light came into the world, [and] people preferred
darkness to light” (Jn. 3:19), but as it says elsewhere in John,
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness
has not overcome it” (Jn. 1:5).
In other words, when the going gets tough, when the darkness thickens,
God does not vanish; God doubles down, recommits, gets in the muck with us.
The implication is that Christ’s presence among us is not an instance
of guerilla salvation – let me strike quickly here, save them,
and then retreat back to the right hand of the Father.
Christ is alive, present with us in the Spirit, sustaining us as the church.
Christ is alive in our life, and in your life, in my life.
That is good news. That is joyful news, both for the rest of Lent,
and for the rest of our lives.
The good news, the joyful news, is always Jesus Christ,
Jesus Christ who is alive, now and forever.