The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
Reflection and Dialogue: God loves the world; divine vision, human frailty, new beginning
A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
First Reading (2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23). The wrath and mercy of God are revealed in the exile and the release of the people. The two books of Chronicles (originally just a single work) are an idealized retelling of Israel’s earlier story as found in the books of Samuel and Kings, other books of the Bible, sources probably now lost, and some sections possibly from the Chronicler’s own creative imagination. Unlike the books of Samuel and Kings, the Chronicler prefaces his narrative with an account of early history from Adam onwards. The work presents an idealized picture of David and Solomon in particular, without mention of their weaknesses, sins and excesses recorded in the sources. The work is particularly interested in the Temple, its furnishings and its liturgy, David being regarded as the originator and model in liturgy and psalmody. Despite the Chronicler’s idealized image of the past, the historical record forces him to admit that with the total destruction of the Temple, the Holy City Jerusalem, and of the state of Judah. God’s election of Israel would seem to have been a failure, due to the neglect of the divine message that came time and again through the prophets. Thanks to the same prophets, in particular Jeremiah, the disaster was regarded as a punishment, not a total end. The encouraging prophecy of Jeremiah resounded loud and clear. After seventy years a new age would dawn. The books of Chronicles thus end with a text borrowed from a related work, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah on the work of Cyrus, king of Persia (not a worshipper of the God of Israel), who was called by God to undo the earlier destruction and bring to an end the exile to Babylon. The pagan monarch was commissioned to rebuild the Temple of the God of Israel in Jerusalem. The message of the reading is that God punishes to purify, not to destroy. The readers could have been reminded of God’s word as given to the exiles in the Book of the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 29:11): “The plans I have for you, says the Lord, are plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope”.
Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 136). O let my tongue cling to my mouth if I remember you not!
Second Reading (Ephesians 2:4-10). You who were dead through your sins have been saved through grace. The Epistle to the Ephesians has been so excellently introduced by H.G. May and Bruce M. Metzger in their introduction to this letter in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha (1957) and what they say is so apposite for today’s reading that I believe it merits citation at length here: “Regarded by many as the most sublime of all of the apostle Paul’s writings, the theme of this brief letter is God’s eternal purpose in establishing and completing the universal Church of Jesus Christ. Though drawn from various backgrounds and nationalities, the members of this community have been called by God the Father, redeemed and forgiven through his Son, and incorporated into a fellowship that is sealed and directed by the divine indwelling Spirit (this Trinitarian emphasis in a lyrical mood, appears in (chapters) 1.5,12,13; 2.18-20; 3.14,16,17; 4.4-6). In developing such luminous figures of the church as the body of Christ (1.23; 4.16), the building or temple of God (2.20-22), and the bride of Christ (5,23-32), the author suggests the glorious privilege and destiny of believers as well as their duties”. It is the vision of the Church, of Christian life, that has inspired generations of believers, of ordinary and great minds down through the ages, and found new expression in the documents of the Church in our own days in the Second Vatican Council and its Constitution on the Church, the Church as Lumen Gentium, the Light of all nations. Today’s reading is about God’s great love for us, for the world. This message is given not just for the first century but for all ages. It is to remind believers, and all humanity, that in Christ we are all God’s work of art, created to proclaim his name. This text recalls Paul’s own words (2 Corinthians 3:2-3) that the new covenant is a letter written by the Holy Spirit in our hearts. It is all God’s doing, a gift of divine grace, the purification of the human heart from sin. We are called on to recognize our dignity, and live accordingly.
Gospel (John 3:14-21). God sent his Son so that through him the world might be saved. This reading is part of a dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, and of a discourse of Jesus on that occasion. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews and a member of the Sanhedrin, the religious governing body of the Jews. He discretely defended Jesus against accusations by this body, and was also present at the burial of Jesus. He came to Jesus by night, out of fear of the Jews. In his conversation with him Jesus makes use of terms that can have a twofold meaning, one referring to earthly matters, the other with a heavenly connotation. For entry into the kingdom Jesus stresses the need to be born anew, from on high, by the Holy Spirit. In like vein he speaks of himself as “being lifted up” like the serpent in the desert, lifted up on the cross, but more so lifted up, exalted in his victory over sin and Satan on the Cross, at his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of the Father at his ascension, ascension to the right hand of the Father from whom he has come on earth, with the sole purpose of bringing new life. This Gospel is all about this new life. The text has the same message as that of the second reading. It recalls the episode of the bronze serpent in the desert (Numbers 21:9). God’s immense love for the world is again stressed. Jesus came, and underwent death, not to condemn the world but to save it. But salvation means abandoning sin and following Christ. Christ, the light of God, shows up sin for what it is, and as such brings judgment.
B.The Bible: Reflection and Dialogue with Questions of the Day. God loves the world; divine vision, human frailty, new beginnings
Today’s readings give ample opportunity for the necessary dialogue between the church, the Christian message and the human vision and the forces at work in the world in which we live. On the one hand we have the vision of God’s love for the world, first as expressed by Jesus himself in John’s gospel: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. God sent his Son into the world not to condemn it, but that through his Son the world might be saved. These are sentiments stressed again in the reading from the letter to the Ephesians: God loved us so much that he was generous with his mercy. He brought believers in him to life in Christ. This saving vision and action of God through Christ is to be continued and made manifest in the Church, by the Church, by believers. They are God’s work of art, created anew in Christ to live the good life and bear witness to God’s vision and message.
But to become a reality in the world of space and time, the divine vision must become real in human life, in believers, and then in those convinced of the value to them of this vision. And the vision can become a reality not through human effort but by the working of divine power as the apostle Paul candidly admits when reflecting on the mystery that is the new covenant: “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). Only too often both the ministers of the Church and of many of the faithful in general have feet of clay, that impede even consideration of the relevance of the divine vision, of God’s love for the world.
But even apart from this there are other elements of the vision of God’s love for the world that call for dialogue. Christ came that the world might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). Jesus is both life and light. As light he brings to light what is wrong and sinful, and as such brings judgment. Salvation means accepting the light, God’s vision of life. True life comes through “death” to what is dark and sinful in oneself. This is not a vision or message that is too easily accepted, least of all so in a society which either rejects the divine or is agnostic about God’s very existence. In any matter of dialogue with modern Western life, from the believer’s point of view, such as those attending today’s Mass and others, for whom the readings were originally, and still are, intended, the message remains clear: there are those prepared to hear Jesus’ message and those who are not. The readings call on believers to accept God’s vision and message and be messengers of it to others in their lives and religious convictions. With regard to failures in Christian response, the Biblical message can provide a certain balance. Today’s first reading is about a failure of response in Israel’s history, followed by disaster, but ending by the indication of a divine saving intervention and promise of a new beginning. God himself created all things and saw that his creation was good, very good, but soon saw the increase of sinfulness, regretting that he created humanity (Genesis 1:1-21; 6:1-8). And yet he brought about a new beginning after the flood. The scandals of some years past, particularly in a limited number of clergy and religious, is saddening and disheartening, but still no call for despair. Rather it calls for reflection on some central truths, one truth being that the success of this divine vision of God’s love comes from God’s power, not from mere human effort. The divine vision shows up what believers, and the human race, are called to be. The divine light reveals human dignity and human failings. The life of each Christian is still God’s work of art. Let us pray that the Church, and each one of us, may live the divine mystery that we are. As the second reading puts it: “Created in Jesus Christ to live the good life as from the beginning God had meant us to live it”.