Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 22, 2009 – Blessed Sacrament
Christianity often seems far more complicated than it need be, something true in particular of Catholicism. We Catholics have a well developed institutional structure; we have a lawbook with no fewer than 1,750 canons; we have a doctrinal heritage so rich that the Catechism of the Catholic Church needed almost 2,900 paragraphs to express it. St. Augustine once complained that too many man-made regulations were obscuring the religion that God, in his mercy, wished to be one of freedom.
If we are tempted to agree with the great saint, we may be helped by today’s New Testament readings not to forget what is central and what is basic in our Christian religion. In very few sentences they offer encapsulated descriptions of the heart of the Christian message and of our response to it.
In both readings, the first word spoken in the description is one of mercy, of love. “God, who is rich in mercy, out of his great love for us,” St. Paul begins. “God so loved the world” is St. John’s even pithier expression. The Christian message begins with the assertion of the love of God for us. The first thing we should think of when we think of God is, not anger, judgement, punishment, but mercy, love, forgiveness. St. John is explicit on this: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” St. Paul says it in his own way: God’s love for us was great “even when we were dead in our transgressions.” This is unmerited love, utterly gratuitous on God’s part: Paul again, “By grace you have been saved…; it is not from you; it is the gift of God.” As he says in the Epistle to the Romans: “The proof of God’s love for us is that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
We should not pass quickly over such statements, should not allow our familiarity with them to rob these claims of their extraordinary character. They assert that the universe, and we within it –“God’s handiwork,” Paul calls us–are the work of a divine artist . We, and the universe we inhabit, are not the result of mere chance, of impersonal and indifferent cosmic forces; we exist because God has loved us into existence, because God loves us into existence, at this moment–the next breath we can take we can breathe because God loves us, now, at this moment.
But the basic message does not pass over the damage we human beings have done to the work of art that we are, made in God’s image and likeness–the chips and cracks, some of them severe, that have marred God’s fine creation, lovely when it left his hands. But the basic message is that none of these faults is so severe that God has ceased to love what he has made. More than that, it says that he has sent his Son to share our broken, cracked humanity, and from within it, as one of us, to embody God’s enduring love and to repair our flaws and restore us to our former beauty. He entered so fully into our condition that he died our death, and the love of God and of Christ has been so great that “he brought us to life with Christ, raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavens, in Christ Jesus.” God loves us so much that in his love we are already with him, already sharing the risen life of the one who shared our death.
That is the basic message, the one that we will be celebrating in intense fashion during the holy days that lie just ahead. That is what is placed before us every time we hear the Scriptures read and proclaimed. It is, if you will, the objective side of Christianity: what Christians assert and believe. But there is a subjective side to Christianity, too. St. Paul expressed it obliquely when he warned us not to think that our salvation was our work: “by grace you have been saved.” It is directly expressed by St. John, when he speaks of the judgment that follows even, indeed especially, the message of God’s entirely gracious love for the world. This is not so much a judgement that God pronounces, but that we pronounce on ourselves. “This is the verdict,” St. John says, “that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil.” What an awful thing to have to say: that people have an opportunity to walk in the light, to see all the wonders of God’s nature and grace in brilliant, all-revealing light, and yet prefer to stumble on in darkness, blind to the beauty that is all around them. And the reason St. John gives for this unreason is that among the things Christ’s light reveals is everything in us that is unworthy of such a universe and of such a God, all that we have to surrender for the sake of inhabiting in joy the world that God has loved into existence. We prefer our dark world to God’s brilliantly illumined world.
Every time we hear the Gospel message, we are placed before that judgement, that choice, between darkness and light. The message is simple, and so is the choice. Here is the heart of Christianity as it confronts us; here is the heart of Christianity as we choose how we will respond. It is the ancient choice that Moses urged upon Israel: “I set before you life and death: Choose life!” Today Christ puts it in these terms: “I set before you light and darkness: Choose light!”