Third Sunday of Lent - March 7, 2021
My friends in Christ, I would guess that most of us probably have seen bracelets or bumper stickers which display that famous acronym: WWJD. “What would Jesus do?” Of course, the idea is that when presented with a tough choice, or when confronted with some sort of temptation…we stop, we think, we ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” And then we act accordingly. We are to play nice, say the nice word, do the nice thing…. Aw. How nice.
But then again, we sometimes come across a Gospel story such as what we are given today, and so the next time somebody asks you “what would Jesus do,” feel free to tell them that flipping tables and making a whip of cords certainly is a viable option! Ha!
In today’s Gospel text from Saint John, we encounter Jesus doing something that…well…is not very nice; “he made a whip out of cords…and overturned their tables.” And the Sadducees and the other usual suspects watch Him not being very nice, and if this scene were to happen today, well I can imagine them wearing those WWJD bracelets. They basically ask their 1st-Century equivalent of our own “what would Jesus do” question: what gives You the right? Or to phrase it according their own Gospel verbiage: “What sign can You show us for doing this?”
Now, in the Gospel narrative of Saint John, that word “sign” has a very specific meaning; it is effectively synonymous with “proof.” Proof of Jesus’ power and authority…proof of His divinity.
There are seven such signs – seven proofs…seven miracles – that Saint John chose to feature in his Gospel narrative. The first is the miraculous change of water into wine at the Wedding Feast of Cana; the last is the miraculous raising from the dead of his friend Lazarus. And here in Saint John, the seven signs all point toward (and ultimately culminate with) the greatest sign of all: the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In today’s text from Saint John, we observe the Jews demanding signs from Jesus – what is His right to do these outrageous things in the temple area! And Saint Paul, in today’s Scripture text from First Corinthians, also observes that Jews demand signs (“and Greeks look for wisdom”).
In Saint John, Christ gives answer to demands for a sign: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” He is speaking, as we know, of the Crucifixion and Resurrection; “therefore, when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this.” And then for the Church in Corinth, Saint Paul confirms this rather strange idea that mocks and defies signs and wisdom: “we proclaim Christ crucified…Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
This is the theology of the contradiction of the Cross – the sign and the wisdom of the Cross of Jesus Christ! In dying, He destroyed our death; in rising again, He restored our life. His moment of defeat actually is His moment of glory, and in His apparent defeat, it is actually Satan who is defeated.
If you have ever seen that film The Passion of the Christ, then perhaps you remember that very strange cut-away at the precise moment of the Lord’s death on the Cross: a sudden shot of Satan in hell howling and shrieking in utter defeat! But why? Jesus died; Jesus lost; Satan won…or did he? It is such a brilliant instance of filmmaking that portrays an amazing theological truth: the absurdity (the contradiction) of the Cross. Satan thought he won; he thought he would be laughing; he should have been laughing – but instead, he was howling, and he was shrieking. No victory. Only defeat…. For thus is the contradiction of the Cross.
And the Cross is not glorious, not majestic, not anything good, of course, in and of itself; but it is made these good and noble things by virtue of the Lord’s Sacrifice of Self. Because as usual, the Lord can make any good come from any evil, and the worst evil of all is deicide: the murder of God.
But even then, Jesus made something good come about: our redemption…our salvation. From the worst evil came the greatest good! It is an instance, once more, of His salvific work; He redeemed the Cross; He redeems suffering. And so it is that He redeems our sufferings, too.
The Altar of His Sacrifice…the Key to His Kingdom…the Throne of the Lord: thus is the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…. And when He breathed His last and gave up His Spirit (the exact moment of His death on the Cross) – that is the precise instant when everything changed.
And this is why the crucifix is the sign and symbol of our Catholic Christian religion. Not the empty tomb. Not any of His healings. Not any other moment of His life, neither before death nor after death. Not even the “buddy-Christ.” The crucifix: the image of Jesus Christ dead on the Cross.
Now, some people inevitably will retort, “But we are a resurrection people.” But actually, that is only half correct, because the Resurrection without the Crucifixion actually makes no sense. That would be like trying to describe the afterlife with no reference to death. The “after” in “afterlife” is, of course, in reference to death: after death, there is life. And as there can be no coin without both sides, there can be no afterlife without death; just so, there is no Resurrection without Crucifixion.
So, we are a resurrection people, yes…and we are a crucifixion people. Which is just so weird to say! Far better, then, to say that we are a Christian people: both Crucifixion…and Resurrection.
Yet another “both-and” proposition brought to you by the Catholic Church!
And as a Christian people…we (who are a Christian people) are bidden by our crucified and risen Lord to take up our cross and follow Him…by which He means, of course, that we ought to love Him, and we are to be His friends…and He says to us, “You are My friends…if you do what I command you.”
So…we began these reflections with signs, and the greatest sign is the Cross of Christ – His Crucifixion and His Resurrection…and we are bidden to take up our cross, too – so to love Christ, so to honor Christ…and our cross, to put it quite frankly, is to keep His commandments.
Which brings us now, in conclusion, to the Ten Commandments. And yes, it is true that the Ten Commandments entered the scene long before Jesus was born…but we need to remember that Jesus came not to abolish the Law…but to fulfill it. And so, the Ten Commandments still are in play here for us. But rather than dissect the Ten Commandments and apply each specific detail to each specific aspect of our lives, there is an interesting mathematical point that is mentioned here which we might consider for our concluding reflection. God says, “I, the Lord…[inflict] punishment for their fathers’ wickedness on the children of those who hate Me…to the third and fourth generation; but [bestow] mercy down to the thousandth generation.” Now, this…is a strange phrase! God says it, but what exactly does it mean? Well what is going on here is this: the Lord actually is talking about the sheer greatness…of His mercy. Think about it. How long is three and four generations? If we say, for example, that a generation is about twenty-five years long, then God’s punishment persists for seventy-five or a hundred years (three or four generations). Just basic math: twenty-five times three is seventy-five, and you get the idea…. Ah, but…how long is a thousand generations? Twenty-five times one thousand is twenty-five thousand years! And so if the wrath of God persists for a mere century…then the mercy of God extends for twenty-five millennia.
And what this means for us…. If Jesus (crucified and risen) suffered His own Cross and now bids us to carry our cross, thus to follow Him – follow Him where? To life! To eternal life! And so, if having to bear my cross – even for a full earthly lifetime – is what I am bidden to do and how I am to find my way – find the Way – and follow Jesus so as to live with Him forever…. If I have to suffer the “wrath” of God in the form of earthly suffering, even for a hundred years, if that means getting to bask in the mercy of God in Heaven forever…then so be it! Bring it on, says I! Because I, for one, would gladly suffer for a mere century if that is what it takes to rejoice and be glad for all eternity!
If the command is the Cross…then Heaven is the consolation. And even now, we are blessed with a glimpse of heavenly consolation, most especially in the grace freely given us in the Sacraments, the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar above all…the Eucharist…. May it be then that in the Cross of Christ, we encounter His glory…and in His Crucifixion, we acknowledge our redemption…and in His Resurrection, we embrace our salvation…. And in the Eucharist, may it be that we are given His consolation as we continue our pilgrim’s journey of faith here on Earth toward life everlasting in halls of heavenly realms.
on Monday, March 8 at 12:05PM