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Ash Wednesday Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

Lenten Reflection Fourth Sunday

Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Lent – Cycle B 2024

II Chronicles 36:14-16; 19-23

Psalm 137

Ephesians 2:4-10

John 3:14-21

We yearn for light. This time of the year we sit at breakfast watching the sun come up and watch it diminish at supper. Today we turned our clocks ahead— “spring forward”.  We also yearn for spiritual light—the Light of the World. Our Lenten practices move us out of our patterns of other times (Benedict calls us to “wash away …the negligences of other times”) to focus more intently on God’s work in our lives and signs of spiritual growth. 

Today we rejoice on this Laetare Sunday; not only is Lent at its midpoint, but we are reminded that our celebrations of Advent and Lent are inextricably linked by these “hinge” Sundays on which the vestments reflect the rose of dawn. We rejoice not only in Christ’s incarnation but also on his passion, death and resurrection…the Paschal Mystery.  

In John’s Gospel, we observe the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, a Jewish pharisee of high status.  It is significant that the conversation occurs at night when he seeks out Jesus to question him, to dare to hope in his identity and to clarify what Nicodemus cannot comprehend—rebirth in water and the Spirit. We see his rabbinic struggle to make sense of its meaning—the classic struggle of the head vs. the heart.

It’s a meeting with significant consequences in a time when opposition to Jesus is growing from both the Romans and the Jewish leaders. The character of Nicodemus has been more fully developed in the series, The Chosen, than in the few references in scripture. More layers of his character appear as he wrestles to accept who Jesus is. In the end of the first season, although recognizing that Jesus truly is the long-awaited Messiah, Nicodemus cannot make the final commitment to leave everything behind to follow him—even when Jesus extends the invitation.

Any of us who have made hard choices to leave the world behind in seeking God through religious life, have wrestled with family considerations, image considerations, financial security considerations. It is the constant dilemma for many Christians—how total is our commitment to follow where Christ beckons when we must leave our comfort zones? Some years ago, you could find posters asking, If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? We can relate to the agony of Nicodemus’ decision-making process when we face complex situations calling us to “do the right thing.”

This Gospel selection also contains one of the most well-known and perhaps well-loved passages of the New Testament. It is a comforting message. Seen on billboards, clothing, jewelry, and signs at large events where cameras will find it, John 3:16 summarizes God’s action in sending salvation to the world… ”for God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”  

As we continue to read John’s gospel beyond verse 3:16, we see that darkness enters the scripture at John 3:19…” people loved darkness rather than light.” As the Gospel of John continues, we are told that the world is at odds with Jesus. The inhabitants of the world preferred darkness to light, earning them the name “children of darkness.” We hear many in contemporary theological circles painting the world in a negative light. The Johannine scholar, Fr. Raymond Brown, cautioned that contemporary Christians are sometimes naïve about John 3:16 and the innocence it creates: “the world is not exclusively neutral, nor is it patiently awaiting good news...many are actively hostile to Jesus, Christianity and its message.” It’s a dilemma—God made the world and all that is in it, how can it be both awesomely beautiful and yet darkly threatening?

The founding pastor of my home parish in California (a Newman Center) often cautioned the assembly about taking a few passages of scripture out of context; In the case of John 3:16, he saw just one piece of a repeated biblical affirmation of the universal salvific will of God which also included Matthew’s description of Jesus’ vision of the judgment of God--separating the sheep from the goats. Jesus states that the focus of the last judgment will be based not on belief but on whether they have followed his commandment to feed the hungry, tend to the sick, welcome the stranger or visit the prisoner. Demonstrated compassion speaks louder than words without corresponding actions.

One of my favorite spiritual songs is by Sarah Hart and Robert Feduccia; Christ the Lord.  We will sing it today during communion. It provides a perfect lyrical summary of this portion of the gospel of John. The first verse is as follows: Darkness hangs, the world is aching, Yearning for the coming light. In his rising hope awaking, love has come to steal the night. In our hearts true east we’re facing, toward the coming of our Lord. Morning rising, gloom now fleeing; Christ returned! His word is true. The remaining two verses are no less profound. I invite you to pray these words as they are sung today.