14 Mar 2021

St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 14 March 2021

What a strange choice of readings for a day we call ‘Lætare’ or ‘Rejoicing Sunday’! Our first reading from the Book of Chronicles tells how all the faithful – including the leading clergy – proved unfaithful. They “added infidelity to infidelity”, copying the shameful practices of the pagans, ridiculing God’s prophets sent to call them to repentance, and defiling the Temple (2 Chr 36:14-23). So, as if washing His divine hands of them, God lets Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian potentate, besiege and conquer Jerusalem, twice in fact (in 597 and 587 BC: 2Kings chs. 24 & 25). This led to the death of one king of Judah (Jehoiakim), the capture of two others (Jekoniah and Zedekiah) with their officials and other worthies, and their deportation into exile in Babylon.

Eduard Bendemann, Lament of the Jews Exiled in Babylon (1832), Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne

Eduard Bendemann, Lament of the Jews Exiled in Babylon (1832), Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne

It’s from there that we hear the Psalmist lament: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept, remembering Zion” (Ps 136). Hearing of the failures of the clergy and faithful and the suffering that followed, we might expect the story to end with conversion or forgiveness. But there’s no happy ending for this prodigal son: the Babylonian forces raze Solomon’s Temple to the ground and devastate Jerusalem, scattering the people far and wide.

Our Gospel reading (Jn 3:14-21) includes my favourite verse in the Bible: “God so loved the world, He gave His only Son” (Jn 3:16) – that we might have light and life, even perpetual light and eternal life.

Yet for God’s gift of pure love poured out upon the world, humanity returns hatred. In response to God’s gift of pure light come into the world, men embrace the darkness. So Jesus predicts He will be lifted up, crucified like Moses’ serpent on a pole or the medical caduceus on a stick. What on earth is there for us to rejoice about in readings so bleak?

Well, let’s look again. When our psalmist laments today, because he is living in exile in Babylon and misses Jerusalem, he doesn’t pretend life there is joyless: he only insists that he must prize Jerusalem “above all my joys”. What’s more, there’s reason to hope for a time after the Babylonian exile. At the end of our first reading we hear about Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian empire, who dislodged the Babylonians and, unlike Nebuchadnezzar respected the religions and customs of the peoples he conquered. He decreed that the Jews might return to Jerusalem and even directed the rebuilding and restocking of the Temple.[1]

So remarkable a thing was this for a pagan king to do, that Isaiah called Cyrus ‘Messiah’ or ‘the Lord’s anointed’ – the only non-Jew ever given that title (Isa 45:1). For us Christians, of course, this is a premonition of that time when the physical temple restarted by this pagan Messiah will make way for the eternal temple of the true Messiah, the Body of Christ (Jn 2:13-25). And so, for all the darkness and hate described in our Gospel passage this morning, Jesus[2] insists that He was sent by God into the world, “not to condemn the world, but that it might be saved”. There are, in fact, some who do good rather than evil, some who walk in the light rather than the shadow.

All of which means Lent is not meant as a punishment or a time for us to hate life. Rather, it’s a time of reflection upon our sins and woes – for they are real – and to ask if there is any meaning there, any lesson, any hope.

Social researcher Mark McCrindle and team recently reported that 41% of Australians have been thinking about God more since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, 35% praying more and 25% reading the Bible more (The Future of the Church in Australia, Sydney: McCrindle Research, 2020)[3] Above all, they found that half (47%) of the Australian population have been thinking about their mortality and the meaning of life. All of which suggests Sydney and Australia are ripe for re-evangelisation! Like the psalmist we cry out for the heavenly Jerusalem, for our return from ‘exile’ in this world to our home with Christ. Yet Rejoicing Sunday reminds us that in the meantime life is not all lamentation – as deserved or satisfying as lament sometimes is! No, we may still sing our songs, and indeed there is cause to do so, COVID-masks or no…

Echoing Jesus’ thought that God so loved the world He gave His only Son, St Paul writes to us today that God so loved us He gave His infinite mercy (Eph 2:4-10). The Commonwealth’s Newstart Allowance was replaced last year with JobSeeker and it will soon be rejigged. But God’s Newstart Allowance is offered every time we are emotionally flat, morally moribund, spiritually dead from our sins. He gives us a Newstart through the wonderful Sacrament of Baptism, for which Lent is a special time of preparation for our catechumens. He gives us a Newstart through the ‘second Baptism’ of sacramental Confession, for which Lent is a special time of summons for the rest of us. He gives us a Newstart through the final baptism of death, for which Lent is a special time of joining Jesus in the tomb that we might rise with Him at the end. And the divine Newstart never runs out of budget! – as Paul says, “through His goodness to us in Christ Jesus, God has shown for all ages to come, how infinitely rich is His grace”.

So is God like a doting grandmother who ignores what we do, excuses our every foible, and keeps showering us with treats every time she sees us? No, the Chronicler is clear: the priests and people of Israel could and should have repented; the Prophets were sent by God for that purpose. Paul, too, says that if we are God’s handiwork we should be living a life worthy of Him. And Jesus says sentence is pronounced on those who refuse to believe or to live as they believe, but that those who believe in Him and live by the truth will be saved.

So “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her” (cf. Isa 66:10) because after the first Good Friday came the first Easter and by faith and sacrament we are joined to that. “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her” because amidst the Lent of our everyday lives there are intimations of God’s infinite love and our Eastering through word and sacrament. “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her” for after the Lent of our lives comes the eternal Easter, when we shall be revealed as God sees us. “You are God’s masterpieces, created in Christ Jesus to live the good life as He planned for us from the beginning” and will bring to fulfilment at the end.

[1]    2Chr 36:19-23; cf. Ezra 1:1-8; 3:7; 5:14-17; 6:3,14;  Isa 44:28; ch. 45.

[2]     Our lectionary attributes the sayings in Jn 3:14-21 to Jesus. So do the KJB, NRSV and many other translations. But there are no punctuation marks in the original Greek and so it is unclear. Some translations imply these sayings are observations of the Gospel author (e.g. D-R, Good News, RSV) or are ambiguous on the matter.

[3]     McCrindle Research, The Future of the Church in Australia, pp. 15f; Anna Patty, “The meaning of life: Australians praying more during COVID-19,” Sydney Morning Herald 23 August 2020.

“Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her” – so began the Introit which our choir just sang for us (cf. Isa 66:10). In the middle of this penitential season accompanying Christ to His Passion and Death, the Church breaks out in unseemly laughter. It’s as if, knowing what is coming, we’re unable to take the dour purple of Lent and the deadly threat of Good Friday seriously. For the Church is impatient for Easter, like a child eyeing the Easter eggs, picking them up when no-one is looking, scratching the coloured foil away and sniffing the chocolate.

So it is with Lenten sombreness but Sunday joy that I welcome you to St Mary’s Basilica in Sydney for the Solemn Mass of Lætare Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Lent. That we might be ready to rise with Christ at Easter, let us go down with Him into the tomb as we confess our sins…