Rejoice with Jerusalem, be glad for her, all you who love her! (Isaiah 66:10) These are the words of the ‘entrance antiphon’ to the Mass on this Fourth Sunday of Lent. This Sunday is also known as Laetare Sunday (Rejoice Sunday) because the entrance antiphon for the day begins with the Latin word “laetare” and the vestment worn by the presider at Mass is rose-coloured, and not violet. On this day, the Church through the Liturgy of the Word expresses hope and joy in the midst of our Lenten fasts and penances. The colour rose indicates a glimpse of the joy that awaits us at Easter, just before we enter into the sombre days of Passiontide. Midway through the season of Lent, the Church rightfully reminds us of what awaits us on Easter Sunday — the reality that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and that our hearts will always be filled with joy!
One of the literary features of the Gospel of John is the use of dichotomous distinctions. Examples of these would be light and darkness, above and below, flesh and spirit, truth and falsehood, life and death and others. The purpose in doing this is to assist the “audience” to understand better the theological truths that John intended to clarify through his Gospel. Our Gospel this Sunday, the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, is one such example.
At the time of Jesus, the “world above” (God’s realm) is contrasted with the world below. The “world below” signifies the inhabited earth which has not accepted God. The two different worlds are represented by two sets of forces. The force from above is Christ who is opposed by the force from below, this world. Therefore the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, about being “born again” has to do with the “force from above” (Christ) is now in their midst, offering the gift of eternal life. This life will be achieved by the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus – unknown to Nicodemus at the time of this conversation.
The way in which God was going to reconcile this “dichotomous thought” and offer this eternal life was by sending Jesus into the world. Today we hear the most well-known verse from the Gospel of John: “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” (John 3:16). God’s purpose in creating and redeeming the world in Christ was to love the world and embrace sinful humanity, and not to condemn it. In short this is the purposeful incarnation that God intended from the beginning of time.
One may wonder why is there a need to focus on the incarnation during the season of Lent? Isn’t that the focus of Advent? The passion, death, and resurrection would not be possible if not for the incarnation – God coming to live amongst us and sanctifying the world with His presence. By this, there is no longer the dichotomy of the “above and below” but being aware of God’s grace and presence in our world. It is in this world that God’s creative and saving love can be experienced. It is here that the glory of God can be seen.
In this conversation, unknown to Nicodemus, Jesus already sets out His saving work that will be accomplished through the cross. It is in the lifting up of the cross that God’s love will be made known to us in a powerful way. The cross for us is not just a symbol of Christianity but a reminder of the depth of God’s love through the sacrifice of His Son. The gift of eternal life has been given us already on earth as a sure sign and hope that we will possess it irrevocably in heaven.
As we move closer to the culmination of the season of Lent and set our eyes on the glorification of Christ in Jerusalem, let us also strive to become the visible sign of God’s love in the world. If Christ was sent into our world to manifest God’s love, then as disciples, we who bear the seal of God the Creator, must also be the sign of love that shines forth as witnesses of God. This transformation only happens when we are “born anew”. In the words of the great scripture scholar Raymond Brown, “to be born again from above means we must, at some point in our lives, come to understand that our life comes from beyond this world, from a place and source beyond out mother’s womb, and that deeper life and deeper meaning lie there.” The “deeper life and meaning” that we have been created and sent for is to radiate visibly God’s love to all.
Fourth Sunday of Lent (14 March 2021)