Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent
Readings: 2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23; Psalm 136 (137):1-6; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21
14 March 2021
These last couple of days, I was supposed to be speaking at a conference in Myanmar on Leadership in Dark Times. The conference organised by the Jesuits in Yangon was to be conducted on Zoom, given the COVID-19 restrictions in place. The opening address was to be delivered by Cardinal Charles Maung Bo. But then with the military coup having occurred, the conference was cancelled. In the midst of the coup, we were all given a true lesson in Christian leadership in dark times. When citizens including children were protesting on the streets of Myitkyina, the authorities were threatening to shoot. Sister Ann Rose Nu Tawng, a 45-year-old nun from the Kachin ethnic community, in full habit including a veil, knelt and prayed, begging the armed police officers to spare the children and take her life instead. She told the international media: “I knelt down … begging them not to shoot and torture the children, but to shoot me and kill me instead.” This was the second time in a week that she had confronted the armed authorities. She said, “I can’t stand and watch without doing anything, seeing what’s happening in front of my eyes while all Myanmar is grieving.” I suspect Sister Ann taught us more about Christian leadership in dark times than all the speakers would have if our conference had proceeded.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus that “the Son of Man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” The scripture scholar Francis Moloney tells us that the Greek verb used for ‘lift up’ means “both a physical ‘lifting up’, as Jesus was lifted up on the cross, and ‘exaltation’, the high point of Jesus’ revealing presence.” “Just as Moses physically lifted up the serpent in the wilderness to give life to those who gazed upon it, so also will the Son of Man be lifted up that life might come from him.”
The veiled Sister Ann kneeling and pleading with arms outstretched was like Jesus being lifted up on the cross so that the children might have life. Sister Ann had no fear of the light. She was more than happy for the international media to scrutinise her actions and to highlight the actions of the military which would cause more fear and destruction in the darkness. Jesus says in today’s Gospel: “People have shown that they prefer darkness to the light because their deeds were evil. And indeed everyone who does wrong hates the light and avoids it, for fear their actions should be exposed; but the one who lives by the truth comes out in to the light, so that it may be plainly seen that what she does is done in God.” A military junta always prefers darkness to light; meanwhile, the kneeling nun prefers light to darkness. Those who have nothing to hide always welcome the light of truth.
This past week we have also witnessed the extraordinary visit by Pope Francis to Iraq. The 84-year-old pontiff, painfully limping with his excruciating sciatica, and in the midst of the uncontrolled pandemic in Iraq, went there with two objectives. First, he wanted to stand in solidarity with the persecuted Christians of Iraq whose numbers have decreased from 1.5 million to 400,000 in the years since the 2003 Iraq War. He celebrated Mass in the Chaldean Rite at the Cathedral of St Joseph in Baghdad. In the Church Square at Mosul, he prayed the simplest of prayers:
If God is the God of life – for so he is – then it is wrong for us to kill our brothers and sisters in his Name.
If God is the God of peace – for so he is – then it is wrong for us to wage war in his Name.
If God is the God of love – for so he is – then it is wrong for us to hate our brothers and sisters.
Archbishop Amel Shamon Nona, the Chaldean bishop who now lives in Sydney, having gone into exile from Mosul in 2015 when Islamic State went on the rampage, said “It was an extraordinary feeling to see the Holy Father visiting Mosul because I never expected such a thing would be possible. It was very sad to see the city in that situation, but at the same time it was very good to see the Holy Father praying in the heart of the ancient city with all the churches where Christians have lived since the second century.” On Thursday night at High Table here at Newman College, I sat with our Agriculture student Marko Younan who is Chaldean. He shared with us his family’s delight that the Pope had visited his people and prayed the Mass using their Chaldean rite.
The second objective of Francis’ visit was to foster better interfaith relations. Pope Francis standing in the square in Mosul, like Sister Ann kneeling in the street of Myitkyina, was like that serpent in the desert being held up to bring life. Standing in that square, he prayed:
Lord our God, in this city, we see two signs of the perennial human desire for closeness to you: the Al-Nouri Mosque, with its Al-Hadba minaret, and the Church of Our Lady of the Hour, whose clock for more than a century has reminded passers-by that life is short and that time is precious.
Francis had long desired to fulfil Pope John Paul II’s dream of visiting Ur, the supposed birthplace of Abraham the great patriarch for Jews, Christians and Muslims. He fulfilled the dream, but alas, without any Jewish leaders in attendance. To the Christians and Muslims in attendance, he said, “Let us not allow the light of heaven to be overshadowed by the clouds of hatred!” He noted that dark clouds of terrorism, war and violence had gathered over Iraq.
Francis also visited the 90-year-old Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Al-Husayni Al-Sistani. It was not a matter of Al Sistani being summoned to the pope’s presence in Baghdad. The pope went to the humble home of Sistani travelling down the narrow laneway in Najaf to reach the house. Sistani is a greatly respected religious authority in the Muslim Shia community, and not just in Iraq. Unlike Shia authorities in Iran, Sistani is truly independent of government. He told the pope: “For 10 years I have not received people who come to visit me with other aims, political and cultural, no. Only religious.” Two years ago, Pope Francis had met in Abu Dhabi with the respected Sunni Imam Ahmad al-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, signing a Document on Human Fraternity. Having met formally with a respected Sunni leader, it was now time to meet with a respected Shia leader.
Francis knew there would be criticism of his outreach to these Muslim leaders. On the plane back to Rome, he admitted: “You know that there are criticisms in this regard: that the Pope is not courageous; he is reckless, acting against Catholic doctrine, that he is one step from heresy…. There are risks. But these decisions are always made in prayer, in dialogue, asking advice, in reflection. They are not a whim, and they follow in the line of what the [Second Vatican] Council taught.”
There are those who criticise the pope for having made this visit when there was every risk that his presence would exacerbate the spread of the COVID-19 virus amongst Iraqis who, unlike the papal entourage, had not been vaccinated. And they have a point. There are those who criticise the pope for downplaying that part of today’s Gospel which declares that “whoever refuses to believe is condemned already, because he has refused to believe in the name of God’s only Son.” And no doubt, they have a point. But even the most conservative Catholics need to concede that the Second Vatican Council teaches: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in [other] religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all people.”
For these past eight years, Pope Francis has been urging us to go to the frontiers both in our faith in God and in our commitment to humanity. Francis standing in the church square at Mosul and Sister Ann kneeling in the street at Myitkyina are signs to us of the Son of Man being lifted up on the cross so that everyone who believes may have eternal life. Let’s give thanks for the huge risks they have run, and let’s try to live more by the truth, coming into the light, so that it may be plainly seen that what we do is done in God.
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne, the Distinguished Fellow of the P M Glynn Institute, Australian Catholic University, and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).
 Francis Moloney, ‘John’, in The Paulist Biblical Commentary, Paulist Press, New York, 2018, p. 1105 at p.1128
 Vatican II, Nostra Aetate, #2