Fourth Sunday of Lent

14 March 2021
'The Brazen Serpent' at Corrado Giaquinto (1703-1766). Image: Wikimedia Commons

 

Fourth Sunday of Lent

Readings: 2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23; Psalm 136:1-6; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21

14 March 2021

 

Breaking open the word

The early 2000s produced a television phenomenon that filled Australian grocery shoppers with trepidation: Aristos. This larger-than-life chef loved the challenge of transforming the ingredients in your shopping trolley and kitchen pantry into a feast for your family and friends. The catch? He would bring with him into your home a full-scale television production team—lights, camera, action! More than a few shoppers were reluctant to have floodlights shining into their kitchen cupboards and broadcasting their eclectic contents across the country.

This art of transformation is also one of God’s specialties—and the more eclectic or mouldy the ingredients, the more glorious the final feast. His chefs are called, not Aristos, but “Christos” (Anointed One). Cyrus, king of Persia in the early sixth century BC, was one such “anointed one,” delivering the Israelites from their second major period of slavery and exile: the Babylonian captivity. But, as highlighted by today’s first reading, the transformation worked through Cyrus was so radical as to almost be scandalous.

During the seventh century BC, the inhabitants of Jerusalem had moved further and further away from their mission to shine the light of God’s holiness, goodness and majesty on the world. Thus, this light of truth was instead shone on them by the invasion of the Babylonians and the destruction of all the signs of the Covenant promises: the Temple, the land and even the royal line, which seemed to be extinguished.

God used this desolation and time of exile to enlighten the hearts of his people and to enkindle in them the hope of a saviour, the Messiah— Hebrew for “Anointed One”. The power of God’s merciful grace is seen in King Cyrus. Miraculously, after his Persian empire defeated the Babylonians, he allowed and even sponsored the exiles to return to Jerusalem. Even more miraculously, the exiles had the humility to recognise this Gentile as a “christos”, and to publicly acknowledge that they had been so “dead through sin” that only a foreigner, one outside the Covenant, had been able to raise them up. They didn’t even attempt to claim the credit.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus challenges us to admit that sometimes we prefer to hide in darkness than to live in the light of truth. Facing the truth about the out-of-date tins and chocolate stashes in the locked cupboards of our hearts requires constant acts of faith, choosing again and again to trust that “it is by grace that [we] have been saved … not by anything [we] have done” (Ep 2:8). But when we do this, we experience the tremendous freedom of knowing that “God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but so that through him, the world might be saved” (Jn 3:17). We have no reason to fear the healing light of Christ.

Healing from venom by looking at a bronze serpent? Who could fail to give the glory to God for such a bizarre transformation? Healing from the venom of sin by gazing on the obedient Son, who on the cross bore the consequences of our disobedience without wavering in his love for us and his trust in the Father? Who could fail to love the transformative light of such a gentle “Christos”?

By Baptism, we too have become little “christos”— Christians. May we love all those who cross our path, regardless of what is in their shopping trolleys, and allow the transformative light and love of Christ to shine through us on them.

SR SUSANNA EDMUNDS OP

 

Reflecting on the Gospel through Art

The Brazen Serpent – Corrado Giaquinto (1703-1766)

The Brazen Serpent (1744). Oil on canvas, 36.5 cm × 95 cm. National Gallery, London. Public Domain.

Today marks the halfway point of Lent, and in a sense, the Church takes a little pause and looks ahead to the joy of Easter. Discipline was always relaxed on this day (the Church wears rose—halfway between purple and gold), and in former times in England, serving girls were allowed home to visit their mothers. It is still Mother’s Day in England, going by the beautiful title of Mothering Sunday.

In each of the three-year cycles, the Church is particularly motherly on this day in the choice of the Mass readings. Today’s speak of the loving mercy of God. It is good to remember that it is he who took the initiative in our salvation. We can sometimes get the wrong impression that God had first to be pacified by his Son’s death before he would forgive us. We might even once have thought that the Father was stern and angry and Jesus kind and gentle, and that by his death he changed the Father’s attitude to us. Today’s Gospel destroys that wrong impression. It was the Father who sent his Son to us. It was the Father who took the first step, epitomised beautifully by Jesus’ telling of the parable of the prodigal son, wrongly named because it is the parable of the forgiving father.

In a world which had rejected him, God chose the approach of love, not of power. “I could never be afraid of a God who became a baby,” said St Thérèse of Lisieux. God is not an absolute monarch who is not happy until he has reduced his creatures to abject obedience. Rather, God is the Father who is not happy until all his wandering children have come home.

And today’s Gospel passage shows how all-inclusive is God’s love. It is not directed at one nation only, nor is it only for the good. It is directed to all nations, to the children of light and to the children of darkness.

But the passage also speaks of condemnation. How can this be reconciled with love? Condemnation does not follow from God’s action, but from our response. Jesus declares emphatically: “The Father judges no one” (Jn 5:22). Christ is the light. If we get lost it is because we have turned our back on the light.

The story is told of a visitor being shown around an art gallery. At the end of the tour, the visitor said, “I don’t think much of these old pictures,” to which his guide replied, “You’re missing the point. These pictures are no longer on trial, but those who look at them are.” The man’s reaction was not a judgement on the paintings, but on his own pitiful appreciation of art. We are judged by our own judgements.

This week’s artist, Corrado Giaquinto, was born in 1703 near the famous city of Bari, in Italy (Bari is the resting place of St Nicholas). As a boy, he became apprenticed to a local painter, escaping the religious career his parents had destined for him. He then trained in Naples, and then virtually became a peripatetic painter, with long sojourns in Naples, Rome and Madrid. As court painter to Ferdinand VI, Giaquinto had a profound influence on Spanish artists, most notably Velazquez.

But it was in Rome that Giaquinto attained his crowning achievement, creating a series of paintings commissioned by Pope Benedict XIV for Rome’s Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem (built on the remains of the home of Saint Helena who had found the true Cross). We’re looking at one of them here. It now hangs in the National Gallery in London.

Giaquinto focuses on the moment in which the Israelites can be saved by looking at the bronze serpent raised up by Moses, identified by the two rays of light emanating from his head. The chosen people had grown tired of walking through the desert in search of the Promised Land, criticising both Moses and God. God sends a plague of venomous snakes, and many die from their bite. The people repent of their stupidity and plea with Moses to pray for God’s forgiveness.

In the painting, we can see some men and women staring upwards seeking salvation, while others are sprawled on the ground suffering the effects of the serpent’s poison. Behind Moses is an altar covered with a pink cloth on which have been placed some liturgical vessels such as a chalice, a censer and a basin. The presence of Eleazar the priest in his golden vestments and Levites dressed in white robes give the scene a sacred, even liturgical, nature.

The 40-year trek through the wilderness is a symbol of our own lives. We, too, often grow weary on the journey of life and wonder whether God will be true to his promises. The Israelites could have made the journey in 12 months, but the lesson for us is that whenever they forgot God, they went round in circles and even backwards. God never lost his patience, continually nourishing his people with water from the rock and manna in the desert. Christ would later refer to the bronze serpent as a symbol of himself. Lifted high on the cross he would be the eternal sign of God’s forgiveness. God never tires of us, lifting us up time and again when we fall, especially through the sacraments. What a message for this Comfort Sunday!

The Church requires the presence of the crucifix whenever Mass is offered to remind us that the Mass makes the crucifixion present. The body of Jesus offered on the cross is offered in the Mass. His presence under the two forms of bread and wine gives us a reminder of how his body and blood were once separated for us.

The crucifix takes us into the mystery of Christ. The wound in Jesus’ heart reminds us that he is the new Adam (many crucifixion scenes include at the base of the cross a skull representing Adam.) As Eve was born from the side of the first man as he slept a deep sleep, so Christ, the new Adam, falls asleep in death on the cross, his side is opened by the centurion spear, and from the waters of Baptism that flow out, and the blood of the Eucharist, his bride the Church is born. We will return to this theme on Palm Sunday.

The crucifixion is a handbook of prayer. It makes prayer easy. This is why we hang it in our homes. Every Christian home should have a crucifix prominently displayed. It reminds us that we are loved.

MGR GRAHAM SCHMITZER

 

Sr Susanna Edmunds OP grew up participating in Holy Mass and youth groups in the Diocese of Broken Bay where she received a love for Sacred Scripture and evangelisation. While studying engineering at the University of Sydney, she discovered the beauty of Eucharistic Adoration, regular Confession and faith-filled friendships through the Catholic student society and chaplaincy. World Youth Day 2008 brought Pope Benedict XVI and several hundred thousand pilgrims to Sydney’s shores, along with many religious congregations. Supported by friends and family, Sr Susanna discerned an invitation from the Lord to belong to him with an undivided heart. She joined the Dominican Sisters of St Cecilia in 2010, moving to Nashville TN, USA, where the community’s motherhouse is located. After completing further studies in philosophy, theology and secondary education, Sr Susanna began teaching in 2015. She made her final profession as a religious in 2017, and since 2018 has been teaching high school religion at Trinity Catholic College in Auburn, NSW. The sisters teach at four schools across Sydney and Melbourne, as well as assisting with young adult catechesis, women’s retreats and vocation discernment.

Monsignor Graham Schmitzer recently retired as the parish priest at Immaculate Conception Parish in Unanderra, NSW. He was ordained in 1969 and has served in many parishes in the Diocese of Wollongong. He was also chancellor and secretary to Bishop William Murray for 13 years. He grew up in Port Macquarie and was educated by the Sisters of St Joseph of Lochinvar. For two years, he worked for the Department of Attorney General and Justice before entering St Columba’s College, Springwood, in 1962. Fr Graham loves travelling and has visited many of the major art galleries in Europe.

 

With thanks to the Diocese of Wollongong who have supplied these weekly Lenten 2021 reflections from their publication, Comfort – Lenten Program 2021.

 

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