“Spending time with God
puts everything else in perspective!”
by Fr Antoine Farrugia SDB
Scripture readings: Courtesy of Universalis Publishing Ltd. – www.universalis.com
Reflections and Prayers by Fr Jack Finnegan SDB
1st Reading – 2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23
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. The Lord, the God of their ancestors, 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.
They 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 until the kingdom of Persia came to power. This is how the word of the Lord was fulfilled that he spoke through Jeremiah, ‘Until this land has enjoyed its sabbath rest, until seventy years have gone by, it will keep sabbath throughout the days of its desolation.’
And in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, to fulfil the word of the Lord that was spoken through Jeremiah, the Lord roused the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia to issue a proclamation and to have it publicly displayed throughout his kingdom: ‘Thus speaks Cyrus king of Persia, “the Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth; he has ordered me to build him a Temple in Jerusalem, in Judah. Whoever there is among you of all his people, may his God be with him! Let him go up.”’
Our first reading today focuses on a specific period in the history of Israel: the Exile to Babylon and the decimation of those who remained. At that point in time (sixth century B.C.) Judah had been defeated and great numbers of the population were held in captivity or exile. The Sabbath had been ignored (sound familiar?). The Temple was burned. Jerusalem was destroyed and the land lay desolate. Exile was interpreted as punishment of both priests and people, for their infidelity and corruption, and for ignoring the Prophets (especially Jeremiah). Restoration from exile will therefore depend on the faithful few. The message is one of guilt and atonement portrayed through the imagery of exile and return. How might we apply this story to Jesus? How might we apply it to ourselves? How might we apply it to our country today? How are we caring for soul?
LORD, Adonai, how many times have we, priests and people, been unfaithful to you? How many times have we refused to listen to the prophets? I recognise my own disloyalty to your word and your grace. I, too, have often ignored your prophets’ teachings about justice and love. I too have failed to offer you proper Sabbath respect and glory. I recognise the ways I have not tended to soul and witnessed to Spirit. I repent. I confess my sin and I repent. Send your healing Spirit to me that I may walk in your sacred way and witness to your mercy. Amen.
Psalm – Psalm 137:1-6
Psalm 137 is the lament of the exiles in Babylon sitting near the willows on the banks of the Euphrates. Jerusalem is presented as a memory to be kept alive until the land is restored. The song of Zion becomes a lament for Jerusalem. Do you recognise the picture painted by the song? Angry people engaging in passive resistance, people caught in the eternal struggle between good and evil. Can you imagine them hanging their harps on the willows and weeping for everything they had lost? Can you imagine them asking the key question: how do we worship our God in a strange land? How do we worship in a thoroughly hostile culture? What about us?
LORD, Adonai, teach me to grieve for the things we have lost, to weep for ignoring you and for going our own selfish ways. Forgive me for treating others with suspicion, hostility and condemnation. Hear my prayer for migrants and immigrants. Bless asylum seekers and refugees. Liberate the victims of human trafficking. Be with those suffering abuse of any kind. Be with the homeless. Move me to put vengeance aside and sing songs of reconciliation, understanding and peace. Amen.
2nd Reading – Ephesians 2:4-10
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.
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.
Once again we listen to the echoes of an early Christian hymn, one with a baptismal theme. By grace we have been saved through faith: a pure gift from God. We are God’s handiwork! We are alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions! What am I outside of Christ? Dead! But God is merciful, loving, kind, full of grace. Salvation is a gift of God in Christ, a lavish outpouring of grace. It is not of ourselves. And our response? To accept the gift in faith and witness to the wonders of God’s grace and love.
Lord Jesus, how wonderful your mercy! How lavish the grace you pour unstintingly into our hearts and souls! Thank you for saving us by your free gift of grace! Thank you for paying the full price for our salvation! Let us be alive in you! Let us rejoice in you! Let us glorify the Father in you! Liberate us to work in the Spirit with you for a better world. Amen.
Gospel Reading – John 3:14-21
Jesus said to Nicodemus:
‘The Son of Man must be lifted up
as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,
so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.
Yes, 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.
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
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.’
Today we reflect on part of the story of Nicodemus who came to Jesus one night. In the part of the story we have here Jesus is talking to Nicodemus who hadn’t really understood what Jesus was trying to teach him. Unlike the woman at the well in the next chapter, Nicodemus didn’t get the message. He didn’t get what Jesus was saying about spiritual rebirth and its necessity for entering God’s Kingdom. But this rebirth is the fruit of Jesus being lifted up. Here we are confronted by the meaning of Jesus’ Cross and Glory! Jesus did not come to condemn the world but to save it: there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). He is the light! Are we ready to come to the light, so that everything we do may be clearly seen as done in God? Are we ready to walk in the light?
Lord Jesus, Nicodemus did not get the point that night when you told him about rebirth in the Spirit. Sometimes I don’t get it either and choose my own paths, my own ways, my own selfish interests. I know that God did not send you into the world for condemnation but for mercy. Wrap me in your mercy today. Let me be reborn in your Spirit. Give me the strength to walk in the light. Help me respond to the rhythms of silence. And when the time comes open to me the way to glory. Amen.
Word of God and Salesian Life by Fr Juan José Bartolomé SDB
This gospel passage is part of the dialogue that Jesus had with Nicodemus, an important religious leader who had shown interest in getting to know Jesus personally (Jn 7,50; 19,39) and had come to meet him by night. In language typical of John’s gospel, Jesus explains to this learned and well-intentioned Jew, the motive for and the significance of his impending death. No one can explain death better than the one who has suffered it. The evangelist puts on the lips of Jesus the faith professed by the early Christian community: the Son is the one who has come to us from God, and the power of his love is shown in his death. The love of God is unconditional and without limit. Man can count on this love of God for the world, but that does not excuse him from his responsibility. Indeed, it adds to his responsibility and reminds him of it. The world cannot stop being loved by God, but it can refuse to receive God’s love or to feel loved in the way that God loves. We cannot be saved without God’s love and we cannot live feeling unloved. That ‘feeling unloved’ is precisely the meaning of damnation. Despite God’s love and the sending of his Son for our salvation, perdition is still more than just a possibility, it is a present reality.
Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it
The meeting of Jesus with Nicodemus, a master in Israel, (Jn 3,1-21), allows the narrator to present the first sermon of Jesus in the fourth gospel. It is, in fact, a monologue, starting from Jn 3,11, in which it is difficult to distinguish between the actual words of Jesus and the evangelist’s comment. Although it was Nicodemus who went in search of Jesus and started the conversation (Jn 3, 1.4.9), rather than sharing in the conversation he is merely the pretext for reporting what Jesus said. Very soon he will be forgotten, and, starting from Jn 3, 9, there is the impression that we are listening to a dialogue between the early Christian community and the Jews, rather than a conversation between two individuals.
The scene is set in (Jn 3, 1-2a). Immediately the dialogue with Nicodemus focuses on new birth (Jn 3,2b-10), and specifically on the conditions for seeing the Kingdom (3,2b-3) and entering it (3,4-8). The misinterpretation by Nicodemus (Jn 3,4.9) – “how can that be possible?” – prepares for the revelation of Jesus as the one who reveals the Father (Jn 3, 11-21). The sermon begins with a solemn statement by Jesus (Jn 3,11a) in which he speaks of himself in the third person. From 3,13 on, he stresses the necessity of accepting the testimony of Jesus and believing in him in order to have eternal life (3,12-15), a life which comes from God and is God’s gift to the world (3,16-21).
‘Believe’ is the word that keeps recurring throughout the first half of Jesus’ discourse (Jn 3, 22.214.171.124), whilst the theme of light dominates the second half (Jn 3, 19.20.21). In the first part (Jn 3, 12-18) there is the distinction – from above/from below – to express the divine nature of revelation. Being ‘lifted up’ (Jn 3, 14) is essential for eternal life (Jn 3, 15.16). Eternal life brings with it the action of God who loves, gives and sends (Jn 3, 16-17), three actions in which the Son is given as demonstration and guarantee. The Son who is given and sent (Jn 3, 16.17.18) is the only-begotten Son of God (Jn 3,16.18) who is sent to the world (Jn 3,16.17.19). In the second part (3, 19-21) new terminology is used and a precise statement is made: “sentence is pronounced” (Jn 3,19a). Ideas are presented in pairs: belief and condemnation (Jn 3, 18), light and darkness (Jn 3,19), doing wrong and living by the truth (Jn 3,19-20). They indicate the opposite reactions of man to God’s work. To believe is to accept the love of God made real in the gift of His Son. Not to accept him is to be condemned. Anyone who does not know that he is loved is thereby condemned. Or, to put it another way, not recognizing God’s love is already sufficient reason for condemnation.
Meditate: apply what the text says to life
In the dialogue with Nicodemus, a well-intentioned Jew, Jesus explains the meaning of his death and the nature of the life he will give. The necessity of his death is indicated by the image of the serpent that was raised up, and saved the people in the desert from death. However, death is not Jesus’ objective but rather the means by which God reveals, beyond any doubt, the love he has for us. This great love of God, and the gift of his Son, are of little value if they are not received with true faith. The effectiveness of salvation depends on acceptance by the one who is to be saved. But it is not at his discretion: it is the time for decisions from above. It is not enough for Nicodemus to come to Jesus in the night. He must accept Jesus totally in the light of day. Anyone who does not see in the light of Christ is living in darkness. Anyone who does not accept salvation when it is offered, risks losing it.
It is interesting to note that Jesus revealed his reasons to one who wanted to know them and went to seek him, albeit secretly, and found him in the night, one who went to ask because he wanted to know. He did not reveal his secret to those who were not interested and did not bother to ask, and made no effort to get to know more about him. We need to find reasons today to go to Jesus, even if only secretly like Nicodemus, to get to know him, to hear him and see him more closely, to ask him his reasons, his sentiments and plans, to ask him about his life and death. In this way we can give him the opportunity to show his trust in us and to become our friend, to make us sharers in his plans and to give us his life.
If many of us feel confused with regard to Jesus, if we no longer understand him as we did before, or if we are surprised at times by his way of acting and his teaching, it is precisely because we thought for a long time that we knew him so well that we did not need to ask him anything. Many people today are no longer interested in Jesus and so, in effect, they cease to be believers. Before losing faith in Jesus, they lost interest in him. This kind of thing could happen also to us. Lack of interest in Jesus is the first step towards losing faith in him.
Just because we are unaware of it, does not mean that the danger is not there. If we don’t want to lose him forever, we must not lose interest in the person of Jesus. We should return to Jesus, immediately, and ask him about whatever we do not know or do not understand. Unless we regain interest in the person of Jesus and the things that concern him, we run the risk of losing him and losing faith in him. Like Nicodemus, we need to feel again the necessity of getting to know him better, to know his reasons and understand his ideas. Then we will discover who Jesus is for us – someone who wants to give his life for us, a God who loves us so much that he gives his own Son for us. If we are not interested in Jesus, we will never discover this God who is so wonderful. We pay a huge price for our disinterest, as we walk the path of life, disillusioned with God because we do not know him well enough. And all because we do not ask!
It would be enough just to feel some love for our God and give him a bit more time, be a bit more concerned with the things of God, and forget for a while other things and people. It would be enough if we were to think a bit less about ourselves, stop listening only to our own needs and wishes, and give more time to God. This would be enough for us to become friends of God, and be surprised by the love he has for us. Jesus would tell us, as he told Nicodemus that night, that his death is necessary if we are to have life: “The Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” If we allow him to speak to us, heart to heart, he will surely convince us.
To make himself understood, Jesus referred to what happened to Israel in the desert, when many were at the point of death because they had been bitten by a serpent. Looking at a serpent raised up on a pole saved them from death. In the same way, his death on the cross is the means he offers us to save us from our death. We must be willing to raise our glance to him, and keep our eyes and our hearts fixed on him. Jesus has been lifted up on the cross so that we may make the effort to raise our eyes and our hearts above the reality of our mortal lives, above our anxieties and our problems, and not allow ourselves to be suffocated by the evil within us and around us. Maybe it is because we look at our world more than at Jesus on the cross, and pay more heed to our own suffering than to what Jesus has suffered for us, that we are unable to see our world and our sufferings with calm eyes and a peaceful heart. Is it not because we do not fix our gaze on Jesus, and him crucified, that our own cross seems so heavy and unacceptable, and we draw back from carrying it? We forget to look at Jesus crucified, and we lose sight of the reason we have to be certain that one day we will overcome the evil we do and the evil we suffer.
Losing sight of Christ crucified is an obstacle to our feeling loved by God. ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.’ The one who does not believe is already condemned. Jesus himself, the Son of God, has told us so, for we would never have guessed it ourselves! He should know, because he paid for it with his life. God has preferred us to his own Son. This statement merits belief for it was made by the Son ‘less-loved’, the one ‘not-preferred’, the one who died for us. The supreme love God has for us was revealed in him. Surely a God like this merits more attention, more of our time, much more of our very lives. How can we continue serving him in mere words, with the same lack of interest, as if we were dealing with a stranger, as if he had done nothing for us and we should do nothing to thank him?
Certainly, our habitual indifference, our repeated silence, and the lack of interest that has become the norm of our lives, make the love that God has for us all the more wonderful and surprising. The gift of his Son should make us less self-centred, more conscious of his death, and more grateful for our salvation. Unfortunately, his love leaves most of us indifferent. In reality, when we look at how things are going in our lives, or how we think they are going, we find it hard to believe that God loves us so much. Precisely because his love is so great, we feel unworthy of it. His love is so mysterious we fail to understand it. His love is so divine that we cannot experience it in a human way. And for all these reasons, we do not believe in the love that God has shown for us. We have not enough faith to accept the love that God has for us. This, rather than our other evils, is the cause that leads to damnation. Jesus himself said so when he was asked: “he who does not believe is condemned already.” We can be free of that eternal condemnation by believing with all our hearts in God’s love. All we need to do is to look more often at Christ raised upon the cross for us.