Reading I: 2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23
In his priestly rewriting of Israel’s history, the Chronicler now reaches the Exile and the return. He offers his explanation of the Exile as a divine punishment along lines similar to 2 Kings, but, significantly, from his standpoint, he stresses that it was a punishment of the preexilic priests, as well as the people, for not listening to the preexilic prophets.
He compresses the burning of the temple and the destruction of Jerusalem into a single verse, and interprets the seventy-year exile as a sabbath for the land of Judah, during which it lay desolate.
The last three verses, a verbatim reproduction of Ezra 1:1-3, were, it is generally agreed, added here by a later editor because 2 Chronicles was the last book in the Hebrew canon and the editor did not want the Old Testament to end on a negative note!
As we noted before, the Old Testament readings in Lent point up the highlights of Israel’s salvation history. This reading features the Exile.
This psalm, the lament of the exiles in Babylon, fittingly follows the first reading. The theme of Jerusalem was a tradition on this day, the old Laetare Sunday. The psalm presents Jerusalem to the exiles as a memory to be kept alive until better days when the people will be restored to their homeland.
If, as is widely held today, Ephesians is a Deutero-Pauline composition, that is, written by a disciple of Paul and a member of the Pauline school after the Apostle’s death, this passage certainly captures the spirit of the Apostle himself.
As in so many New Testament writings of the subapostolic period, we have here a citation from a hymn, evidently a baptismal hymn (note the relative “who,” the concentration on the basic facts of the kerygma, and the liturgical “we” style) in Ephesians 2:4-6.
Note also the parenthetical insertion in Ephesians 2:5, which changes from the first person plural to the second person plural. Note further the connection between this hymn and that in Colossians 2:12, as well as Paul’s exposition of baptism in Romans 6.
All of these passages associate baptism with the death and resurrection of Christ. But there is a difference. In Romans 6 the genuine Paul is careful to say that while we have died with Christ in baptism, nevertheless our rising with him lies in the eschatological future and is a challenge to ethical realization in the present. In Colossians both death and resurrection are experienced already in baptism.
The hymn in Ephesians goes further: not only are we risen with Christ but we have already been translated into heaven with him. This approaches Gnosticism (see 2 Tim 2:18).
Probably Romans and Colossians are drawing upon the same hymn that Ephesians quotes. We thus have a trajectory: (1) primitive Hellenistic-Christian baptismal hymn; (2) Romans 6; (3) Colossians 2:12; (4) Ephesians 2:4; (5) second-century Gnosticism.
Being in heaven with Christ is not a matter for self-congratulation or for a false sense of security, so the author inserts the parenthesis: “by grace you have been saved.” Christian initiation is not simply, as it was for the Gnostics, an illumination about one’s true, innermost nature.
The author expands this Pauline affirmation very precisely in Ephesians 2:8 (“by grace ... through faith”). He then introduces his second anti-Gnostic point: the Christian life is not an intoxication with being in heaven already, but a constant call for strenuous moral effort.
It means doing the good works that God has prepared for us to walk in. This again is good Paulinism. Paul excludes works from any role in justification but insists that they are its consequence.
The conversation with Nicodemus is the first discourse in the Fourth Gospel. It is typical of this evangelist's procedure.
He takes an incident in the life of our Lord from his tradition, here an encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus (there is good reason to think that this encounter, as a historical occasion, belonged to the later part of the ministry, shortly before the passion).
He then has Nicodemus ask three questions (Jn 3:2, 4, 9), each of which elicits a pronouncement from Jesus.
Some of the material in these pronouncements, for example, the saying about being born again in John 3:3, comes from the sayings tradition and is paralleled in the Synoptists. The rest is an elaboration of Johannine theology.
The first part of the discourse enunciates the necessity for rebirth as the essential prerequisite for entry into the kingdom of God. The second part, from which our passage is taken, explains that this rebirth can only come as a result of the “lifting up” of the Son of man, that is, his death and glorification.
As the quotation marks indicate, it is only the saying about the serpent and the Son of man that is represented as a saying of Jesus. John 3:16-21 are presented as a meditation of the evangelist and look back on the coming of Christ and his saving work as an already accomplished event.
In the opening saying about the serpent and the Son of man, we have an interesting interpretation of the cross. There are several presentations of the atonement in the New Testament, but the one given here is frequently overlooked. It is almost an Abelardian interpretation.
The very sight of Christ lifted up on the cross has power to bring men and women to faith and repentance, just as the contemplation of the serpent lifted up on the pole by Moses (Num 21:9ff) was able to heal the Israelites who had been bitten by fiery serpents.
Paul seems to envisage a similar interpretation of the power of the cross when he reminds the Galatians that Christ had been placarded before their eyes as the crucified One (Gal 3:1).
This may not be a very satisfying doctrine of the atonement intellectually, but from a devotional point of view it has great power.
It is saved from being a purely exemplarist interpretation by the ensuing meditation, which asserts most emphatically that the cross is an act of divine love: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”
This also picks up the words at the opening of the second reading: “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us.”