God so loved the world… The familiar words from today’s Gospel are actually a radical announcement about God and his relationship with us. He loves us! This is part of the joyful proclamation we ponder on this Fourth Sunday of Lent, also known as Laetare Sunday (the Latin word for “rejoice”). Can we rejoice even in Lent? Yes, because of what God has revealed to us: that the Father “so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” We rejoice because God is “rich in mercy,” never willing that anyone be condemned, but that all might be saved. He has brought us to life with Christ; he has raised us up and seated us with him in the heavens. This is a wonderful, consoling revelation! Who would not be delighted to learn that this is the kind of God we have?
At the same time, we live a world full of unspeakable sufferings. Many people point to the crushing burdens of pain and sorrow that afflict so many, and they ask, “If God so loved the world, then why doesn’t he do something to relieve all this suffering?” This question brings us back to our need for Lent, that is, our need to face not only the truth about God who is love but also the truth about ourselves, for we are sinners living in a world marred by sin. We may be tempted to stand in indignation and blame God for so much suffering in the world, but a realistic look at human history shows that God is not to blame – we are.
Today’s readings remind us that we are sinners in need of repentance. Left to ourselves, we walk in darkness, and our “works are evil.” Like the people in the first reading, we “add infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations and polluting the LORD’s temple.” When the Lord in his mercy tries to call us back to himself, we mock his messengers, despise his warnings, and scoff at his prophets. We can easily see all around us in the world today the truth of this. If we are honest, we can see it in our own hearts and lives as well.
God does not reveal the truth about us in order to shame us or to drive us into despair. He does it in order to offer us the hope of restoration, just as he did for his people in the first reading. From the exile of our sin condition, we can return to our true and eternal homeland. St. Paul tells us in the second reading that this is purely God’s own gracious gift to us. It is not our doing, nor a reward for anything we have accomplished. The key to benefitting from this divine gift is faith in our Savior Jesus Christ. Paul says: “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God.” Whoever believes in the Son will not be condemned, but if we refuse to believe, we condemn ourselves.
To believe in Jesus Christ, however, is not merely a question of thinking in our minds that what he says is true. To believe is to make Jesus the center of our lives. It means living in humble acknowledgement of our sinfulness and need for God’s grace, and with joyful gratitude for the great gift of salvation.
We see both aspects of the life of faith – both our sinfulness and the love of God which overcomes sin – revealed most perfectly in the Cross of Christ. Jesus proclaims that he must be “lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” This “lifting up” is his offering of his life on the Cross for the salvation of us sinners. If we look upon his Cross, pondering it deeply, we learn two things. First, that we have greatly sinned and so merited death; and second, that God loves us so much that he took the punishment for our sin upon himself and so won restoration for us. These two truths are like a great light for us, showing us the way to life.
As we enter into the second half of Lent, let us ask for deeper faith in Jesus Christ, that we might truly live every aspect of our lives based on our belief in him. Let us look with faith upon Jesus “lifted up”; let us “look upon him whom we have pierced” and so find our hope for eternal life in him (Jn 19:37).
When have I experienced the richness of God’s mercy? How do I perceive the sufferings of the world? Do I acknowledge my own contribution to suffering and then seek the mercy of Christ?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 14, no. 3. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.