REV. ROGER KARBAN
Because the only Bible most of us know consists of just the small segments comprising our liturgical readings, we often have no idea why the sacred authors wrote their individual books. Usually, we discover a writer's objectives only after we've read his or her entire work. Yet if we listen carefully this weekend, we'll hear all three authors succinctly state their books' themes in just the few lines that make up our readings.
Like the bishops at Vatican II, the author of Chronicles is deeply involved in liturgical reform (II Chr 36: 14-17, 19-23). For him, liturgy is much more than just a set of staged rubrics. As Robert North writes in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, "The Chronicles' tender concern for a live ritual -- aesthetic, vocal and conservative -- is its chief message."
A belief that Israel's destiny revolves around the way it carries out its liturgical responsibilities compels the author to blame the Babylonian Exile on past abuses in temple worship.
"All the princes of Judah," he writes, "the priests and the people added infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations and polluting the Lord's temple which He had consecrated in Jerusalem."
That's why the Chronicler has Cyrus end the exile by proclaiming, "All the kingdoms of the earth the Lord, the God of heaven, has given to me, and He has also charged me to build Him a house in Jerusalem." The author's message is clear: The return from exile should include both a return to Jerusalem and a return to the authentic temple liturgy which had been established there centuries before.
Our Vatican II reformers also believed that true and lasting reform always proceeds hand-in-hand with liturgical reform. So they challenged us to celebrate our liturgies against the background of our earliest Christian insights, the insights proclaimed in the second and third readings, the insights which instigated and enlivened Jesus' first followers' actions and prayers.
Paul reminds his Ephesian community that they didn't force God to work in their lives (Eph 2: 4-10). "God is rich in mercy," the Apostle writes; "because of His great love for us, He brought us to life with Christ when we were dead in sin....It is owing to His favor that salvation is yours through faith. This is not your own doing, it is God's gift; neither is it a reward for anything you have accomplished."
God enters our lives only because God loves us, loves us even before we do anything good. We don't perform good actions because we're trying to rouse God to act on our behalf; we perform them simply because a divinely loved person does such things.
Reflecting on the same insight from a slightly different angle, the Gospel passage contains one of Scripture's most famous sound bites (Jn 3: 14-21). (Its chapter and verse are frequently flashed behind home plate during the World Series and in end zones during the Super Bowl.)
"God so loved the world," John's Jesus proclaims, "that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him may not die but may have eternal life." Whatever we are, whatever we will become, we owe to Jesus and God's love, not to our own ingenuity and behavior. Salvation is totally free. God only expects us to join our lives to Jesus so that the eternal life which Jesus attained by His death and resurrection will have a channel through which it can flow into us.
Of course, we cooperate in building our faith-conduit by joining ourselves to a "lifted up" Jesus. One of John's classic double-meaning phrases, "lifted up" conveys the contradictory images of being honored by one's peers and of being raised up in crucifixion. Both are present at the same time in the same action, a classic expression of dying and rising.
The evangelist seems to be saying that no matter what action we employ to show that we're receiving Jesus' eternal life, it must always contain these two elements. It if doesn't, the conduit detaches. In order to live with Jesus, we must die with Jesus.
Live, aesthetic, vocal and conservative Christian liturgy celebrates God's great love of us through Jesus at the same time that it conveys our willingness to die with Him. If we think that just by "going to" the liturgy we're being saved, we and/or our liturgy needs to be reformed.