Today, we pass the mid-term of the season of Lent. As we enter into the fourth Sunday of Lent, the Church invites us to rejoice. Hence, this Sunday is traditionally called Laetarae Sunday, the Sunday of rejoicing. What is the cause of rejoicing that seems to break the somber mood of the season of Lent? During the last three weeks of Lent, the focus had been on penance, prayer, almsgiving and mortification. However, it can lead to a wrong understanding of the Christian Faith, as if we take joy in making people suffer inconvenience and be deprived of the legitimate pleasures of life. The penitential exercises are meant to help us come to a deeper interior prayer life so that we can contemplate on the love and mercy of God. They are meant to clear the way for the Lord’s love to enter into our hearts by helping us to see the light. Christian faith is a joyful faith that comes from liberation from sin.
Indeed, this was the case of the Israelites in the first reading. They were unfaithful to the covenant and as a result brought disaster upon themselves. “All the heads of the priesthood, and the people too, added infidelity to infidelity, copying all the shameful practices of the nations and defiling the Temple that the Lord had consecrated for himself in Jerusalem.” However, God in His mercy, “tirelessly sent them messenger after messenger, since he wished to spare his people and his house. But they ridiculed the messengers of God, they despised his words, they laughed at his prophets, until at last the wrath of the Lord rose so high against his people that there was no further remedy.” As a consequence, when they refused to heed God’s warning of destruction and continued with their immoral and sinful lives, God allowed the consequences of their sins to take place. Judgement followed. “Their enemies burned down the Temple of God, demolished the walls of Jerusalem, set fire to all its palaces, and destroyed everything of value in it. The survivors were deported by Nebuchadnezzar to Babylon; they were to serve him and his sons.” They lost the kingship, the kingdom and the Temple.
Even in our sinfulness, God continues to show His mercy. Indeed, even His judgement and punishment of our sins is an act of mercy. If God allowed Israel to be punished by foreign powers, it was in order that they come to their senses and return to God and the Covenant. Punishment and suffering are the means by which God disciplines us. God acts like a paternal father who disciplines His wayward children. Instead of thinking that God does not care for us or has abandoned us in our sufferings, we should take such periods of suffering as the Lord inviting us to reflect on our lives, our mistakes and learn from them. Indeed, this is done in order to help us repent of our sins and walk in the truth. Even in our sufferings, the Lord gives us hope. This was true for the Israelites who disobeyed God when they were in the desert, grumbling against Him until God sent the serpents to bite them to death. They were taught a lesson by the Lord not to lament all the time but to be contented with what they had. They had no reason to complain as they were given sufficient food.
However, when they repented, God told Moses to tell the people to look at the bronze serpent erected on the pole for healing. By looking at their sins, they came to realize God’s mercy and love for them, which they took for granted. So too for the Israelites in exile. When 70 years had passed, God roused up “the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia to issue a proclamation” to invite the Israelites to return to their homeland and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. Indeed, the mercy and love of God is boundless and wise. That a pagan king would grant them permission and even help them financially to rebuild their kingdom and temple was something beyond their imagination.
Nevertheless, the wondrous mercy of the Lord does not stop here. His love and mercy extends not just to the Israelites but also to the whole world. This is what St John and St Paul proclaimed in today’s scripture readings. St John wrote, “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life. For God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved.” God loves the world and all in it. His love is not confined just to the Israelites but for all. God cares for humanity, our sufferings, our pains, the divisions and wars caused by selfishness in humanity.
He sent us His only Son so that the world might come to know His love and mercy. Jesus’ death on the cross is a reminder of God’s unconditional and total giving love. It is the utter giving of God and truly the expression of God’s mercy for us. In Christ, God our Father suffers with us in our sinfulness and misery. The passion and death of our Lord reveals to us the infinite limits of God’s love. Christ comes not to condemn the world but to show the world the light. He comes to show us the way to love and to find fullness of life. That is why the Lord said, “No one who believes in him will be condemned; but whoever refuses to believe is condemned already, because he has refused to believe in the name of God’s only Son. On these grounds is sentence pronounced: that though the light has come into the world.”
Rejection of Christ is to reject the light and the truth of love. If that were the case, it would not be God who rejects us or causes us to suffer. Rather, we choose to live in darkness and in evil. Indeed, the Lord warns us that “men have shown they prefer darkness to the light because their deeds were evil. And indeed, everybody who does wrong hates the light and avoids it, for fear his actions should be exposed; but the man who lives by the truth comes out into the light, so that it may be plainly seen that what he does is done in God.” By refusing to accept the light because of fear and selfishness, we prevent the grace of God from entering into our lives. It is our sins that prevent us from seeing the light, just like a man with a pair of dirty spectacles is unable to see the light clearly. We need to recognize our sinfulness and our inadequacies so that we can surrender ourselves to the light and to His love.
God invites us to repent, not through force but through grace. He wants us to repent not out of fear but out of love. This is the same appeal of St Paul when he exhorted the people to conversion. “God loved us with so much love that he was generous with his mercy: when we were dead through our sins, he brought us to life with Christ – it is through grace that you have been saved – and raised us up with him and gave us a place with him in heaven, in Christ Jesus.” By reflecting and contemplating on the passion, death and resurrection of Christ, we will find the strength to give up our sins and live the new life of grace by walking in the light. As we follow Him in death by giving up our lives for our fellowmen, we too will come to share in His light and love. And this power is given to us when Jesus is raised from death, enabling Him to bestow on us the power of His spirit to do what He did.
So what is necessary today is that we have faith in His love and mercy, not on our own strength. St Paul wrote, “This was to show for all ages to come, through his goodness towards us in Christ Jesus, how infinitely rich he is in grace. Because it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God; not by anything that you have done, so that nobody can claim the credit. We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to live the good life as from the beginning he had meant us to live it.” It is purely the grace of God through faith in Him and in the power of His Spirit that we are able to be saved and to do good. It is a gift from God, not something we earn or merit.
This is the heart of the gospel message. God intends for us happiness and He forgives us our sins through His grace received by faith. All that is needed for us is to cling to His love and mercy as we continue to contemplate on His face in His passion and resurrection. This is the reason for our rejoicing because of the hope that is promised to us.