“Rejoice in God’s Salvation!”
The fourth Sunday of Lent is also known as “the Sunday of Rejoicing” or “Laetare Sunday”. In the middle of Lent, which is a serious and somber time for fasting and prayer, the faithful are called to celebrate and rejoice in God’s salvation, that is, on the ultimate goal of Christian life. This perspective intends to motivate the faithful to intensify their efforts aimed at repentance and restoration.
The first reading comes from the Book of Chronicles which contains a sweeping account of the entire Israelite history, starting with Adam, the first human being, and ending with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the Babylonian exile in 586 BC. The author of Chronicles concluded that these tragedies occurred because of the breaking of the covenant which left the nation exposed to its powerful enemies, with predictably disastrous effects. One might be tempted to see this history as a tale of disaster.
However, the book also makes it abundantly clear that, despite the nations’ infidelity, God did not abandon or disown his people permanently. On the contrary, for the Chronicler, the future is full of hope, because God bound himself to the people with faithful covenantal love. It is God’s commitment and not the nation’s failures, that will determine the people’s destiny. Jeremiah knew this when he prophesized that the Babylonian enslavement would come to an end (see Jer 29:10-11). Historically, his prophecies came true in 539 BC, when the Persian king Cyrus, overthrew the Babylonian rule and issued an edict freeing the captives with the specific permission, and even a command, to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the Temple.
This decree of Cyrus announcing “liberation” which concludes today’s first reading was good news to the exiled Israelites. Undoubtedly, they saw it as a sign and a proof of God’s salvific intentions and love, which remained unchanged. Thus, the Chronicler interprets Israel’s tragic history not as a tale of disaster, but rather a story of hope. Concluding his account with the edict of Cyrus, the author proclaims God’s enduring commitment to the project of salvation, and he declares God’s salvific purpose which the people’s unfaithfulness would not frustrate.
In the second reading Paul focuses on how those who have joined themselves to the Risen Lord, have already been made alive in Christ. and are therefore “already saved”. This text is a part of a larger section of Ephesians (1:3 – 3:21) focused on the “mystery of Christ”. The author understands this mystery as God’s eternal plan to bring the Jews and the Gentiles together into a single “household”, the new people of God. Through Christ, God has executed this plan of salvation. For Paul, salvation is a gratuitous gift of God to all believers, regardless of their ethnic identity.
Salvation means union with God already in the present life, but in view of full salvation in the future, after the resurrection. Anyone can partake in this salvation, provided they have faith in Jesus, who has made this salvation possible through his death and resurrection. Paul emphatically states this, saying, “by grace you have been saved through faith”. Paul’s message to the Ephesians is, therefore, a jubilant proclamation that salvation now becomes available to all, without any distinctions or discrimination, on the sole basis of faith in God’s Son. Paul emphasizes that this was God’s intention from the very beginning of time, and was fulfilled in and through Jesus. Those who believe in him can already celebrate and rejoice in their salvation.
In the Gospel reading, the evangelist John presents the mission of the Son of God as an expression of God’s love, intent on the redemption of humanity and the offering of eternal life to believers. This view is enshrined in one of the most celebrated verses of John’s Gospel: “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”. Today’s reading comes from an extensive, theological exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1-21). Nicodemus, a Jewish scholar and a Pharisee, was a perfect conversation partner for Jesus who intended to discuss God’s reasons for sending his Son, that is himself, into the world. The concluding part of this conversation read today, reveals that God’s purpose for Jesus’ mission was the salvation of the world. John understands salvation as the gift of eternal life, a theme that recurs throughout the conversation. He also wanted to explain God’s reasons for, and the means through which, this gift of eternal life comes to the people.
God’s reasons are explicitly stated by John in the words: “God so loved the world”. The gift of eternal life is offered because of God’s love for humanity. The way through which this gift was offered is revealed by an allusion to the story from Numbers 21:4-9. There, the Israelites journeying through the wilderness grumbled against the Lord and his servant Moses, completely forgetting the goodness of the Lord and his constant provision that nourished them in the desert. This blatant disregard and ingratitude towards God brought out the fiery serpents whose poisonous bites caused death. When Moses interceded for the ungrateful and obstinate people, God ordered him to make a bronze image of a poisonous serpent and raise it high on a pole. Looking at this elevated object representing death brought healing and rescue from the poison. Quoting this story, John refers to Jesus’ cross. In the desert, the bronze serpent – the tool of death – became the source of healing. On Calvary, Jesus lifted on the cross – the tool of death – becomes the giver of eternal life. God’s salvation came through the cross. Jesus’ “lifting up” was a direct reference to the divine saving act. Again, the human response to this divine act is believing in Jesus, the saviour acting on behalf of the loving author of life – God.
The rejoicing character of this Sunday is perfectly demonstrated by its readings. The first reading, appealing to the edict of Cyrus, declares that God’s salvific purpose would not be undermined by human infidelity. Neither can his faithfulness be frustrated by human unfaithfulness. Paul proclaims that this salvific purpose has been accomplished in the present time by Jesus and that it can be already enjoyed by faith in anticipation of its fulness in the future. The Gospel reading reveals the depth of God’s saving love for humanity, revealed on the cross where Jesus was lifted up for the salvation of the world. All that God has done through his Son was intended to give eternal life to his people, a life that can be had through faith. Because of this, Christians, unlike the Psalmist who lamented in the exile – “by the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept” – can rejoice as God’s salvation draws near.
Right in the middle of Lent we celebrate the Sunday of rejoicing. Rejoicing is a natural response to what makes us happy. Todays’ liturgy identifies, and invites us to reflect on, several reasons why we should feel happy and rejoice, even as we prepare to commemorate Jesus’ passion and death.
The first and main reason for our rejoicing is that God has offered us life that even death cannot destroy, we call this gift simply “salvation.” Jesus came into the world on a mission from the Father to make salvation possible for all who accept him with faith. He offered us the possibility of eternal life regardless of nationality, race, gender, or social status.
While we prepare to commemorate Jesus’ passion, we must always remember that the cross is not the tool of death but the tool of life. John’s Gospel magnificently emphasises this, appealing to the image of the snake whose bites were bringing death. Yet, in the story from the book of Numbers, the same deadly snake became a tool of life. This dynamic beautifully relates to Jesus’ cross which was the tool of shame and torture, which became the means of life and salvation. In our journey through life we frequently experience “snake bites”. These are the difficult and often threatening experiences of suffering and adversity inflicted on us by the circumstances of life or by other people. These make us “die a little every day”. However, today we are reminded to rejoice despite these afflictions, because we know that when we face the with faith they lose their power to harm us permanently. Because of God’ gift of salvation, delivered through Jesus’ cross, no evil power in this life can separate us from God’s love that leads to salvation. This is indeed a reason to rejoice!
Our second major reason to rejoice is that God’s love is gratuitous and permanent. We have done nothing to deserve God’s grace, love, and salvation. This is a liberating thought because it means that we do not have to worry about doing something special or being perfect to receive these blessings. They are offered to us unconditionally. Even more so, they are always there! The first reading shows that despite the nation’s failures, God’s promise remained unchanged. Today, the cause for our rejoicing is the realization that, even though like the Israelites we often fall short of living out our faith ideals, and are weighed down by our failures and sins, God’s pledge of salvation will never be withdrawn. Our destiny is full of hope, because our God is faithful, and determined to sustain us despite our imperfections and sinfulness. We have a Father who awaits us with extended arms, holding in them the gift of life in a gesture of offering to those who wish to reach for it, even if they happen to be the prodigal sons or daughters.
We reach for this unconditional and permanent gift through an act of faith – trustful reliance on Christ and what he did for us. Rejoicing in the middle of Lent is about reminding ourselves why we observe this season in the first place. We do so to train ourselves to believe and trust in God’s offer of salvation, so that we might orient our whole life towards eternal life. Knowing that this is our future, and contemplating Christ on the cross as the source of eternal life, we indeed have every reason to rejoice even as we journey through Lent, and, indeed, through life often full of “snake bites”. Since we have a faithful God and Father we rejoice, because while these bites sting, they are not deadly!