Are We Like Those People?
Fourth Sunday of Lent (B) | Fr Richard Conrad guides us to examine ourselves, and asks if today’s decline in Faith is a rebuke to us.
The first readings for Sundays 1 to 4 of Lent sketch for us the history of salvation, reminding us that, from humanity’s beginnings, we have needed, and received, rescue from sin. On the 5th Sunday we hear a prophecy of what that history of salvation pointed forward to: Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection, and his Gift of the Spirit. That was the New Covenant, God’s ultimate pledge of loyalty; it was God’s great saving deed, which won eternal life for all humanity.
In the Gospel readings for Sundays 3 to 5 in this Year B of the cycle, Jesus himself points forward to that great deed, when his Body, the true Temple, would be lifted up on the Cross so as to pour forth the Living Water. Like the grain of wheat that must be buried to yield a harvest, he would empower us to give our lives in union with him so as to rise in glory.
Today’s first reading summarises the story of the Temple’s destruction and the Exile in Babylon, which took place soon after 600 BC. It tells us why God allowed these traumatic events to befall his People: they had not remained faithful to him, they had resisted the Prophets, they had worshipped false “gods” alongside the True God. We think of the Prophets’ complaints against failure to practise justice or care for the poor. We must be careful how we receive such texts, otherwise we may twist God’s Word into an occasion of sin.
The temptation to pride is insidious. Some Christian writers, some Christian artists, have implied: “We are not like those people of old, whom the Prophets told off. God rejected them, and rightly so. He called us in their place, and made us faithful to him. We Christians are better than those Jews, so God will never have reason to reject us.” If we have such thoughts, we must re-read the Scriptures, and ask why the Liturgy gives us readings like today’s.
Of course God will never reject his People. That is because he is faithful to his Covenant with Noah, his Promise to Abraham, the fierce love he revealed through Moses – we have been listening to those. For St Paul, Jesus does not abolish the Promise to Abraham. He fulfils it, and graciously opens it to all nations. The Letter to the Hebrews agrees with St Paul that the Old Testament rituals could not achieve what Jesus’ Sacrifice did. It also reminds us that throughout Old Testament times there were heroes and heroines of faith and hope, a cloud of witnesses to inspire us. So St Augustine describes how, throughout human history, there has been one City of God, one People of faith and hope, looking forward to Jesus’ Coming – in times past, to his First Coming, and now to his Second. For God’s loyalty to his People, God’s loyalty to humanity, has always ensured that some people are loyal to him, and grieve over the sins they see. By “God’s loyalty” I mean what was revealed and enacted in Jesus’ Sacrifice. He said that when he was lifted up, he would draw all things to himself. Hence the Mediaeval English Liturgy for Holy Saturday says, “Opening your arms on the Cross, you drew all ages to yourself.”
Scripture shows us some people resisting God, and some traumatic events as punishments for sin. St Paul sees such writings as a warning to us. The Liturgy does not give us such texts so that we can pride ourselves, but to make us examine ourselves. After all, Jesus himself warned us that calling him “Lord, Lord” does not ensure entry into his Kingdom.
Traumatic events have happened to the Christian People. Great houses of God, like Cluny, have been destroyed. England retains many such ruins – where the rich did not cannibalise the stones for their mansions. In penal times, many Martyrs gave their lives in solidarity with Christ, many people grieved. But were such times of destruction possible – were they allowed – because the Gospel had not penetrated Christian society deeply enough in “the Ages of Faith”? Civil rulers had waged dynastic wars, claimed authority over the Church, and hanged poor people for poaching! Some Church leaders had succumbed to greed.
And today: many people are ignorant of Christ; we worry how easy it will be to practise our Faith. But: how good a witness have we borne? How well have we resisted “false gods”? Is today’s decline a rebuke to us?
Into the Exile a sign of favour broke; Cyrus’ decree promised a “resurrection” of the People. On Good Friday, when we hear Jesus reproach us, reproach us, let us review how truly faithful we have been, and pray that into our lives and our land signs of God’s faithful love may break.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a medieval crucifix in Sint-Salvator’s Cathedral in Bruges.