Lent 4 – 2Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23; Psalm 137:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21

We often speak of either “being in a good place” or “not being in a good place” as a guage of our mental or spiritual well-being. Along these lines, the readings for the fourth Sunday of Lent all emphasize the importance of place: Jerusalem or Babylon; at home or in exile; in life or in death; in the light or in darkness. The Old Testament readings describe actual physical places. These signify, on the one hand, the joy of God’s presence and of living up to one’s calling to be holy (so, Jerusalem) and, on the other hand, the experience of God’s absence, of the alienating effects of sin on the individual, and community (so, Babylon). Dwelling in Babylon, Israel teaches us to lament, and to long for return to the place of God’s dwelling. The New Testament readings pick up on what is said of these places in emphasizing that it is God’s initiative, not our own, that restores us to the land of the living. But they also remind us that we must participate with God in this restoration, and that especially important in all of this is what we ourselves desire: do we desire the same things that God desires for us?
The reading from Chronicles depicts a rather sweeping overview of God’s relations with God’s people, Israel, concerning the Exile and return. It emphasizes three aspects of this history: first, the people’s failure to fulfill their calling as a holy people, a people set a apart (they practiced “all the abominations of the nations. . . polluting the LORD’s temple which he had consecrated in Jerusalem”); second, God’s longsuffering of their failure to live up to this calling and persistence in trying to call them back (“Early and often did the LORD. . .send his messengers to them, for he had compassion on his people and his dwelling place”); and the divine initiative in restoring them, after the exile, to their life in the land, centered around the Temple where God will dwell in their midst (“he has . . .charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem. . .Whoever, therefore,. . .belongs to any part of his people, let him go up, and may his God be with him!”).
If, in the Chronicles reading we hear the perspective of God and of His prophet, in the Psalm we hear of the experience of exile in Israel’s own voice. Exile is a place of weeping, not joy, a place of lament, not of songs of joy. It is a place of longing for what is lost and remembered. But in this experience, also, it is a place of crystallizing hope: Let my tongue be silenced if I ever forget you, Jerusalem!
In the pairing of these readings with Ephesians, a parallel is drawn between the experience of exile and return, and the experience of sin and redemption: “because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgression, [God] brought us to life with Christ.” But the gospel reading speaks of the role that our own desires play in enabling God’s desires for us to be fulfilled. It says that “the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light.” It goes on to suggest that they preferred darkness to light “because their works were evil.” Coming to the light means that one’s “works might be exposed.” But, in failing to come to the light, we “condemn” ourselves, even though God sends his Son to free us from condemnation.
Lent is a time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These are marks of repentance, but they also put us in touch with what it is we hope for and desire. Difficulty in fasting or almsgiving (or even in prayer) may be signs of desires that are inordinate or misplaced. We are reminded that God alone can satisfy our hungers and slake our thirst, and yet we have other desires or attachments that seem to be for things that can only partially satisfy (darkness, rather than the fullness of light.) In his Spiritual Exercises St. Ignatius teaches one who would identify with Christ to ask for that thing which one desires—and then suggests what it is that one ought to desire. In the process, he shows us that if we don’t desire what it is that God might desire for us, we only need ask God for the desire. Lent is a time for examining our desires. What does God desire for me? Do I desire what God desires for me? If we hope to be Jesus’ companions during Holy Week, we might ask God to align our desires with Christ’s. This is precisely what Christ asked of the Father: “Not my will, by Thy will be done.”

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