2018 Lenten Visit and Vespers with the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill
The Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill welcomed friends and relatives for a Lenten visit March 11, 2018. Sister Donna Mulligan was the speaker at the Solemn Vespers that followed the visit. Her reflection follows.
The reflection is based on the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B: John 3:14-22
Good afternoon and welcome again to our Vespers celebration for the Fourth Sunday of Lent. Some of you may know in years past, this Sunday was also given the name “Laetare Sunday.” The title was received from the first word of the old entrance antiphon for the Sunday liturgy. Namely “rejoice” or in Latin – Laetare. And certainly, on this Sunday we have much for which we can be grateful and rejoice. On the most simplistic level we are over half way through our Lenten journey. I recall as a small child that when we reached this fourth Sunday celebration, it meant that our time of Lenten sacrifice would soon be over and the coming of the Easter Bunny with all the goodies wasn’t too far away. Now as an older and hopefully wiser person, it is the words of today’s Gospel that offer a far more important reason for us to celebrate and to be joyful. This reason is found in one of the verses read a few minutes ago. This verse is arguably the most well- known and beloved verse of the over 31,100 that make up the Bible – If you guessed John 3:16, you would be correct. “God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” We see this verse displayed on everything from decorative plaques and mugs in bookstores to highway billboards to homemade signs held up by fans at NFL football games. Some have called this verse the Gospel in a nutshell, the most succinct answer to all questions about the how and why of our salvation. As we take a few moments to reflect this afternoon on today’s Gospel, we first turn to the story of Nicodemus whose conversation with Jesus precipitated Jesus’ words heard at the beginning today’s reading.
For many of us the story of Nicodemus taken from the Gospel of John is very familiar. We may recall that he was a good man, a devout Pharisee, a scholar of the law and religious authority who came by night in the darkness to speak to Jesus. Nicodemus had heard stories of Jesus and his preaching and sincerely sought to know and understand his teachings. Scholars say Nicodemus may have come at night, because he did not wish to undergo the scrutiny of his peers, face questions or ridicule. Other scholars say Nicodemus may have come at night because it was considered the prime time to study the law and it would be a time when Jesus would be free of the crowds and Nicodemus might have a longer conversation with Jesus without interruption. In your families you may experience this kind of quiet in the evening when supper is over, the dishes done and the kids are in bed. Similar to Nicodemus, the evening hours may also be for us the best time to speak to Jesus. In the beginning passages of Chapter 3 of the Gospel of John, verses we didn’t hear proclaimed today, Nicodemus is asking Jesus about how one might be born again to become a new person, a better person. In essence, how can one be saved? John allows us in today’s gospel to hear the end of that conversation as he states Jesus’s answer to Nicodemus in Jesus’s own words.
Jesus said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the son of Man must be lifted up that everyone who believes in him might have eternal life.” This response had to be very confusing to Nicodemus. Nicodemus would have known from the Torah the story of Moses and how God cared for the wandering Israelites after they had been bitten in the desert by deadly serpents. To bring about healing, God asked Moses to place a serpent on a pole and ask the Israelites to look at it. As they did as Moses instructed they were healed by God. However, Nicodemus could never have imagined that the lifting up that Jesus referenced would not be a usual sign of healing, change or glory, but a cross. How could such a gory instrument of torture and death be the means to a rebirth into eternal life? It would have been a very difficult concept for Nicodemus to accept: that the Messiah he longed for would have to suffer and die in any fashion, yet alone on the cruel cross.
Two thousand years later, in many ways, each of us may be a lot like Nicodemus. We seek answers during our nights. We want to know what is true during the times of darkness we meet in our own lives. Not the time of day darkness that occurs at midnight or three a.m., but during the times of darkness when the world and all that we know doesn’t seem to make much sense. We may experience it on a global or national level when we wonder about terrorism, war, natural disasters, violence and mass shootings like that of a few weeks ago in Parkland, Florida. Or maybe within our families when we meet the darkness of illness, unemployment, divorce, drug abuse, death, or difficulties with our children or other loved ones. Or perhaps even when we face long nights with our inner spirit and being wrapped in depression, anxiety, anger or addiction. We seek answers as to how can we defeat such difficulties. To whom do we turn? How can we keep going? Where do we find salvation?
The answer that Jesus gave to Nicodemus is the same one that is relevant for us today. Look to the Son of Man lifted up, look to the cross. The cross that became the sign of God’s unimaginable, unending, non-revocable love for us. The cross where the God who is love allows his only Son to suffer and die so that each one of us might have the opportunity to be free of the pain of darkness and sin and to live in the light of God’s love. The cross that is our true means of salvation.
In today’s Gospel the evangelist John further reminds us that it is ultimately our choice or not to move from darkness to light. God never forces us to return the love God has for each of us. It is in our daily actions where we opt or not to exhibit our love for God and a desire to be saved. It is by our thoughts and behaviors that we express or not our belief in and desire to have a relationship with the one true guiding light, the person of Jesus Christ.
The church provides us with the wonderful, penitential season of Lent to renew and strengthen our connection to Jesus, to the light he offers to us. It is the special time to examine ourselves and to turn away from any destructive, negative choices that encompass us. The church also designates this Laetare Sunday during Lent to rejoice, to thank God for all the many gifts He has given us, and the many ways we experience God’s love each day. In the parish in which I minister, the pastor, Father Bob Lubic, has asked our parishioners to take on a Lenten discipline of each evening writing down five ways they experienced that day something positive or some sign of God’s love. It could be a beautiful sunset, a child’s smile, a kind word of thanks, the smell of a great hamburger. He saw this practice as one simple means of overcoming the darkness and negativity that seems to engulf our world in so many ways. In celebrating the positive we can eliminate the negative. We still have nearly three weeks of Lent left to enable ourselves to be more fully open to Love of God and to share it in positive ways with others. May we use this time to make choices that move us further into the light, to truly know that God so loves the world, so loves each one of us, that he sent His only son, that through Jesus’ cross and resurrection we may not perish but enjoy eternal life. May the remainder of your Lenten season be blessed as you look forward to a wonderful celebration of Easter. May God bless you!
Sister Donna Mulligan, SC – March 11, 2018