3RD SUNDAY OF LENT – MARCH 18, 1990 – ST. PHILIP NERI
At first sight the readings we have heard today may appear not to have too much to do with one another. We have first the mysterious account of the water-producing rock in the desert, the beautiful and powerful description of basic Christian hope in St. Paul, and the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well in the Gospel. But, particularly during Lent, the Church follows a logic in its choice of these readings, and a closer look will reveal linkages between the readings that point towards aspects of our Christian existence which the Church wishes us especially to focus on during Lent.
Let us begin with the Gospel account. It is a narrative typical of the literary and theological genius of St. John. An apparently harmless encounter is described, an ordinary element is introduced, and a conversation takes place. Here there is the meeting between Jesus and a Samaritan woman, which is perhaps more remarkable in that it involves Jesus not only with a woman but also with a woman from Samaria, and religious rules would have at the time argued against both. But the major emphasis falls upon the conversation which is introduced when Jesus asks her for a drink of water. Water is the common element that now becomes central. To the woman’s surprised response, Jesus says, “If only you recognized God’s gift and who it is that is asking you for a drink, you would have asked him instead, and he would have given you living water.” Now we have moved from simple water to “living water,” but the Evangelist now displays two levels of meaning. The woman takes “living water” to mean fresh water, from a flowing stream, rather than the somewhat stagnant water she is drawing from the cistern. But Jesus leads her beyond this ordinary meaning of water: “Everyone who drinks this water [from the cistern], will be thirsty again. But whoever drinks the water I give him will never be thirsty; no, the water I give shall become a fountain within him, leaping up to provide eternal life.”
Now we begin to understand: the common element is not just physical water; it has become a sign, a symbol, of what will endlessly refresh and satisfy a thirst deeper than physical thirst. And knowing something of the rest of the Gospel, we are put in mind of what Jesus has already said about being born of water and the Spirit, of what he will say later of “rivers of living water flowing from within him,” of the identification of this water with the Spirit that will be given when Jesus is raised from the dead, of the water and the blood that would flow from the side of Christ. A host of associations begin to gather around this simple, common story about thirst and water.
Now perhaps we can see that the story of Israel’s thirst in the desert is not so remote after all. The people grumble that they are going to die of thirst in the desert, and Moses is ordered to strike a rock from which water flows to quench their thirst. This story is not recalled in the liturgy for us to do a sort of historical or archaeological inquiry into what might have lain behind it. Such inquiry is legitimate in other contexts, but the story is evoked here because it had very early on been given a Christian understanding. In the tenth chapter of the first Epistle to the Corinthians Paul had said:
I do not want you to be unawares, brothers, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all of them were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ (1 Cor 10:1-4).
The crisis at Meribah, in other words, is part of Israel’s Exodus experience, but that whole experience is given a “spiritual” interpretation, that is, an interpretation which reads the experience as a “type,” as pointing beyond itself to its fullfilment in Christ and in Christian experience. “These things happened to them,” Paul goes on to explain, “as a type, and they have been written down as a warning to us, upon whom the end of the ages has come.” The story of Israel’s thirst in the desert and its quenching by the rock is thus a story of our basic thirst and its satisfaction by Christ. The whole vast effort of a Christian reading of the Old Testament underlies the choice of the first reading.
Central to that re-reading, of course, is the conviction that the whole Exodus movement, from Egypt across the Red Sea through the desert to the promised land, is a type, a foreshadowing. It is a type first of Christ, who undergoes his own Passover from death to life in his death and resurrection. But it is a type also of the Christian’s and the Church’s passover, from sin to eternal life, in baptism. And now we see the special relevance of these readings during Lent, the season in which we prepare to celebrate Christ’s great Passover by ourselves renewing our own passover in baptism, the season in which catechumens prepare for the great day of their own baptism as part of the celebration of Easter.
This leaves us the reading from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Here we seem to have direct language, describing in unforgettable language “the favor in which we stand.” Paul describes our lives as ones based in hope amidst trial and difficulty. But, he insists, unlike other vague hopes which really mean, “I’m not sure but I hope that such-or-such will happen,” this is a hope that does not disappoint. Why? “Because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Poured out, overflowing from God, comes love: his love for us, our love for him: the fountain of his love creating a fountain within us. And what is the assurance of this love, its proof? Paul locates it precisely when St. John did: in Calvary. “It is precisely in this that God proves his love for us: that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” You may find people willing to die for a good person, he explains, but where do you find someone willing to die for an evil person? Yet this is what Christ has done. “While we were still sinners:” therefore, not because we deserved it, not because we were lovely and loveable, but freely, out of undeserved love, Christ has died for us: to make us lovely and loveable and loving. His love has come first; it has created the beauty he loves, and it demands love. The spring of love evokes a spring of love.
It is the glory of the Lenten liturgies that they bring us this powerfully and this deeply back to the heart of the matter between God and us: directly to the heart of God’s love for us, abundant as a flowing spring, and deeply to our own hearts, from which spring all that we are and do. There is supposed to be a spring within us, leaping up with ever-fresh waters of life, supplied by the love which Christ never ceases to have for us, flowing out to freshen and enliven all our lives.
In St. Clement’s Basilica in Rome there is a wonderful mosaic which illustrates all this beautifully. At the center is a cross on which Christ hangs. But at the base of the cross, where it is stuck in the ground, flow the four rivers of paradise, streams at which we see deer drinking. But from this well planted and well watered cross branch out vines which creep across the rest of the mosaic, forming circles in which are portrayed ordinary people in their ordinary activities, farmers, shepherds, other workers. The cross has become now the vine in whose branches our lives are enclosed.
Symbol upon symbol. Perhaps not a language with which we are as familiar as people were before the onrush of science and technology. But let us not use that as an excuse for imitating the woman in the Gospel today who started off insisting only on the literal meaning of water and thirst. To be a Christian requires us to recognize that there is a deeper thirst, requiring a purer and more living water, for the sake of a richer and enduring, eternal, life. That thirst is there in us. More importantly, that living water is provided to us. Let its promise today arouse in us again the basic thirst to which alone can the message of Christ come as refreshment and life.
THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT – MARCH 10, 1996 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is one of the defining documents of Christianity: from beginning to end it is an exposition and celebration of the triumph of God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ. In the brief passage we have heard this morning, the essence of Paul’s message is set out: that through Jesus Christ we have been justified, are at peace with God, have access to grace, can hope for the glory of God. It is all summed up in the last sentence we heard today: “In this does God prove his love for us: that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Two remarkable things are constantly stressed in this Epistle and stated in that sentence: that we are sinners and that God loves us in Christ.
The two go together–something which perhaps we are in danger of forgetting today. For me the danger is typified in a sanitized version of the great hymn, “Amazing Grace,” that one sometimes hears. Where the author, a former slave-trader, wrote: “Amazing grace…that saved a wretch like me,” some overly sensitive soul has proposed that we sing: “Amazing grace…that saved and rescued me.” A Protestant theologian was heard to grumble when he first heard this version: “If I’m not a wretch, grace isn’t amazing.”
That was Paul’s point also. The first chapters of this Epistle contain a scarifying description of the depths of sin into which all people–pagans and Jews alike–could and did fall: “All have sinned,” Paul said, “and fallen short of the glory of God.” But his purpose was not to indulge in some sort of apocalyptic pessimism, but to make clear the greatness and the gratuity of God’s love for us–while we were sinners, despite our being sinners, Christ died for us. Without this great assertion, we would be sunk in our weakness and poverty. But without an awareness of our condition, God’s love would cease to be grace and would become something we take for granted, presume on, think we might have deserved.
St. Thomas Aquinas reflected this teaching and gave it even a wider application. He saw this difference between human love and divine love, that whereas our love is prompted by the beauty or goodness already existing in a person or thing, God’s love creates the beauty or goodness of that which he loves. This creation is good and beautiful because God’s artistry has loved it into existence. That we are at all we can trace to a divine love that desires that we exist: from the tiniest physical constituent of our being to the sublimest thought or desire of which we are capable, we are and live and think and love and act, because we are loved by God.
And if that is true of our natural existence, the wonder is that this great work of originating, loving creativity God has performed not once but twice. For we are such creatures as can deny our real existence, repudiate its true ground, descend into the nothingness of sin–the only thing in our world and in our selves that God has not created. But even over the chaos of our individual and collective will to annihilation, even out of the nothingness of our sin, God has willed once again to bring forth goodness and beauty and life. And that is what he has done in the “new Creation” which has been brought about by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It is a wonderful message, a wonderful assurance in which to live. It does not naively overlook how dark sin can make our world, how cold it can make our hearts; but neither does it linger over this sad fact about us and our world. It reminds us again of the fidelity of God to his purpose even when we are unfaithful. It provides us a confidence that the darkness we create is never so thick that God’s word cannot again bring forth light. And what should be of infinite warmth to us when we feel the chill reality of our own infidelity–to ourselves, to others, to God–, should also be what we try to bring to a world in which too much is defined by merit and measured by the scales of mere justice. If God measured things by that criterion, we would still be in our unlovely sin. Love initiated whatever beauty or goodness we are able to recover in our lives, and love will be needed if there is to be less evil and ugliness in our world today. Today’s is a Gospel that desperately needs to be preached, and it will only be effectively preached when it is lived.
People sometimes ask: what is love? Paul had his defining proof at hand: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. And this love, he also said, God has poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit he has given us. His love for us poured into us, yes, but a love that is meant to overflow in our response of love to him and in a love for others that tries to imitate the immense and creative generosity in which we stand.
Third Sunday in Lent – February 27, 2005 – Blessed Sacrament
Lent is a time for remembering the basics, for returning to the center, of our Christianity, and nothing is more basic or central than what we hear today in our second reading. This short passage from the Epistle to the Romans describes the great blessings in which we stand and their source in the most Blessed Trinity. If anyone ever asks you what Christianity is all about, you might give him this text.
“Justified by faith, we have peace with God…” “The grace in which we stand.” As you may know, this Epistle of St. Paul is almost totally devoted to the theme of justification: of how human beings are set right in their relationship to God. It begins with a very dispiriting description of alienation from God as evident in the works of both Gentiles and Jews. But this is followed by the great announcement that God has overlooked these sins and revealed his righteousness by setting us right, and that this has been accomplished in Jesus Christ. Being right with God, then, is not something we accomplish; it is not the result of our works, even our most religious ones; it is God’s free gift in Christ.
In today’s passage, Paul returns to that theme: “Having been set right by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” To stand in this grace, he goes on, is also to have hope of the glory of God–of a fulfilment in the Kingdom–, and this hope does not disappoint because “the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Here is the center; this is the precious gift at the heart of Christianity, worth our reflection, worth our thanksgiving. We stand in peace with God; his love has been poured into our hearts, his love for us (establishing our peace) but that love creates our love; we find ourselves loving God, oriented toward him, seeking him, doing his will. At the heart of our personal, spiritual life, then, there is supposed to be peace, not turmoil, love, not fear; and, if this is not true of us, then we need to pray over this text and take it to heart.
And then follows the description of the price that was paid for us to be able to stand in this peace, in this love. “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” This is an encapsulated statement of something we find all over the Bible: that God’s acts for us in Christ are motivated by his love for us, not by his anger, as some mistaken views of the atonement say. The work of Christ, from beginning to end, is motivated and informed by his love, which is the embodiment of the Father’s love. We did not deserve this love; in fact, we deserved anger; but God has not chosen to be angry with the human race, nor with any one of us within it, but has proved his love for us in Christ’s self-sacrifice on our behalf.
St. Thomas had a major theme in his theology: that God does not love his creatures because they are beautiful, they are beautiful because he loves them: it is his love that creates the beauty of all that he loves. This theme of the divine initiative finds its particularly powerful evidence in the love of Christ for us even while we were still sinners: Christ died for us, not because of what we already were, but for the sake of what we could become when the love of God is poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.
God wishes this love to be the orienting dynamism of our lives. This text, as I said, deserves meditation, reflection, on our part, so we can consider whether it defines how we understand and live our Christian lives. Do we live them in peace? Do we understand the grace in which we stand? The hope of glory that awaits us? Do we give thanks for the creative and re-creative love of God that has been demonstrated to us in Jesus Christ? Do we live our lives in the love of God? In the awareness of his love for us? In the freedom and spontaneity of our love for him? Good questions for any day. Especially good questions during Lent, in preparation for Easter.
Third Sunday of Lent – March 27, 2011 – St. John’s, Goshen
True, integral Christianity has two dimensions, one inner, one outer, and they are both represented in our New Testament readings today.
Our second reading was taken from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, a letter that is almost entirely devoted to the question of how we human beings can be in a right relationship to God. His premise is that all of us–whether Jews or Gentiles–have fallen short of what we should be as creatures and children of God, and that the recovery of a right relationship with God is impossible by our own efforts. This right-making was initiated by God and was accomplished by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and it must be appropriated by each of us by an acknowledgment of our need, a confession of our sins, a surrender of ourselves in faith and obedience, all of it the gift of God’s Spirit transforming our minds and hearts.
This is what St. Paul has been describing: “Since we have been justified [set right] by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in hope of the glory of God. And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Notice the words that describe our inner state: peace with God, access by faith to his grace, hope, love for God poured into our hearts–all of this is “the grace in which we stand.” This is the inner dimension of our religion, the “worship in spirit and in truth” that Jesus speaks of in today’s Gospel, not a matter merely of words or of external gestures or even sacred rites such as the one we are carrying out here at this Mass, but a faith, hope, and love that surge from our deepest selves as if from an ever-fresh, ever flowing spring.
And how did we come to enjoy this peaceful state? It was because God came to meet us in Jesus Christ. The initiative is always from God’s side, and it is one inspired, not by anger but by love: “But God proves–demonstrates–his love for us,” St. Paul says, “in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” Christianity has this outer dimension. It is not a religion of human initiative, but of divine gift. Even when we were not seeking God–while we were still sinners–God was seeking us, and, thanks be to God, he found us in Jesus Christ.
Today’s Gospel shows us a moment in that divine search. “Tired from his journey, Jesus sat down by the well.” When he asked the Samaritan woman for a drink of water, St. Augustine said, he was really expressing his thirst for her faith. And he gains it by the end of their exchange as he gradually transforms her understanding of the realities of thirst and water and life. “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again,” Jesus tells her, “but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in her a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” See our two dimensions again: it is from Jesus that we receive the thirst-quenching water, but that water is supposed to become an ever-flowing well within us.
This simple encounter inspired one of the most beautiful lines in all of Christian poetry: “Quaerens me sedisti lassus”–“You sat down wearied by your search for me.” The medieval poet has personalized the search: Jesus was not seeking just that woman; he was wearied by his search for me, the poet says, and for everyone who reads or sings his hymn, that is, for you and for me. Think of yourself as if you are one of those lost children whose photographs we see with the plea: “Have you seen this child?” Think of the father or mother tirelessly searching for that child, and you know the passion of God’s search for his lost children in Jesus, there, in the noonday sun, wearily sitting down, and asking for a drink of water.
“You exhausted yourself looking for me,” each one of us could say to Christ: Quaerens me sedisti lassus. The hymn’s stanza continues: Redemisti crucem passus–“You redeemed me by suffering the cross”–that was how hard Christ’s journey was. And then comes the final, poignant plea: Tantus labor non sit cassus–”May so great an effort not be in vain.” And with that prayer we are brought back to where we began, because whether Christ’s painful and wearying search for me has been in vain will depend on whether or not we agree to be found, find ourselves found in Christ, and enter into the peace and grace of the love of God.