God so loved the world

Today, the liturgy breaks away from the usual mode of Lenten sobriety and penitence and opens the Mass with an exuberant antiphon, “Rejoice, Jerusalem… be joyful, all you who mourn… exult and be satisfied…” Hence, the 4th Sunday of Lent is also called Laetare (Rejoice) Sunday, and fittingly so because the readings cannot but evoke sentiments of great rejoicing.

“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that those who believe in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” A favorite of everyone, this verse is often called “the gospel within the gospel.” It summarizes the whole history of salvation and encapsulates all the revelation contained in sacred scripture. It articulates the meaning and the reason of God’s action in regard to man – love, his ineffable love for man which drives him to give up his own Son so that man may be saved.

In the second reading, St. Paul writes, “God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ…, raised us up with him, and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus.”

In the gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus that just as Moses lifts up the bronze serpent in the desert so that those who gaze on it may be saved from death, so must he be lifted up so that those who believe in him may not perish but have eternal life. Here he speaks of his crucifixion. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (Jn 12:32)

I used to explain this passage to our people by telling them that whenever they look at the crucifix, they should tell themselves, “What a mistake! They got the wrong man. He shouldn’t be there for he is innocent. It is I who should be there for I am the one who sinned” But God, knowing that I cannot take my due punishment, sends his own Son to take my place for “God so loved the world…”

While such explanation may evoke great awe at God’s ineffable mercy, I realized in time that it is not exactly so. To gaze on the cross and be saved means to believe in the crucified Christ. More than just an intellectual assent, this belief entails total trust and surrender. We truly believe in “the Son of Man lifted up,” when we are willing to be united with him on the cross. Only then will we be redeemed and have eternal life.

God is a redeemer, not a rescuer. He does not ordinarily rescue us from pain, suffering and death, even as he did not spare his own Son. Instead, he redeems our pain, suffering and death by uniting them to those of his Son on the Cross. As Christ’s passion turned to victory and his death to life, so with Christ will our brokenness turn to wholeness, our confusion to meaning, our weakness to strength, our bitterness to healing, and our hate to love. Thus, in Christ the serpent and the cross, once instruments of death, have become instruments of life.

When Jesus asks us to take up our cross and follow him, we no longer fear. He has done so before us. Jesus does not ask us to do something he does not do himself.

In his book, “Leaders Eat Last’” Simon Sinek reveals the reason behind the proverbial loyalty of the marines to their officers. What makes them capable of blind obedience, of taking orders without question? (Tell it to the marines! we say.) The answer is simple. The marines know their leaders as men who are ready to risk their lives for them. They put themselves on the frontline, and the marines feel safe and protected behind them.

Dr. Fauci insisted on personally treating one of his nurses who contracted the highly contagious ebola against the advice of the whole team. To him it was a no-brainer. “I did not like the idea of asking my staff to put themselves at risk of getting infected if I wasn’t willing to do it myself,” he said.

St. John of the Cross calls God an “All In-flowing God,” since like the sun, God’s light penetrates every crack and cranny of our heart. He refers to these fissures as the “dark” and the “night” that visit us now and then. These are the problems, frustrations, illnesses, failures, humiliations… that come our way. He tells us to take courage and not be afraid to accept them because they provide an entrance for God into our broken heart.*

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