Sunday, March 11, 2018

A Chronicle of Love

I made the following announcement at the beginning of all the Masses this Sunday:

I have some news to share with you this morning.

As you are well aware, for more than 2 years we have been engaged in a planning process—one that’s taking place all across our Diocese.  It has been a difficult task.

I come today to tell you that Bishop LaValley has approved the plan we proposed to him.  Most significantly, that means that St. John Bosco Church will become an oratory—remaining a place of prayer, but where Sunday Mass is no longer celebrated—and St. Joseph’s Church will close permanently.

This is not easy news to have to share.  This is a very sad loss—not only for those of you who are attached to these two particular church buildings, but for all the Catholics of Malone—your priests included.  We were not ordained in hopes of spending our priesthood realigning parishes and closing churches.

Bishop LaValley will be coming to Malone on Sunday, April 22, to celebrate the last Sunday Mass at St. John Bosco.  He will be returning the evening of Tuesday, May 1—the feast of St. Joseph the Worker—to celebrate the last Mass at St. Joseph’s.

All of our registered parishioners will receive a mailing in the next several days, including a letter from our Bishop and details about his visits.  Copies of these will also be made available in our churches.

The Church wears rose-colored vestments this Fourth Sunday of Lent as a sign of her joy on reaching the midway point to Easter.  The first words of the Mass, as we just sang in our Entrance Antiphon, boldly proclaim: Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all you who love her.  Be joyful, all you who were in mourning…

In light of this announcement, those words can seem a cruel irony.  But I think that they actually hold an important message for us at this crossroads.

It can be awfully tempting at a time like this to focus only on what’s being lost.  That, of course, would be to miss the bigger picture.  The whole point of having a plan is to set our sights on the future.  Committing ourselves to working toward a brighter tomorrow, as did those who built our churches years agothat is the very best way to honor the rich legacy of our past.

As we especially remember at this time of year: with the Lord, there is no death without the joyful promise of resurrection.

In recent days, the comforting words of a familiar hymn have kept ringing in my ears: O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.

The Lord remains ever faithful—no matter what.  May he increase our faith that he is very near to us, now and always.

   Fourth Sunday of Lent   B 

John 3:16.  Anyone who’s watched an NFL game knows that scripture citation.  Now, you may not know what it says, but you know the chapter and verse.  It’s likely the most commonly quoted line in the entire Bible, and it’s at the heart of the passage we’ve just heard: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.  John 3:16 has rightly been called “the gospel in a nutshell.”

But have you ever seen anyone holding up a sign that says 2 Chronicles 36?  Of course not!  We rarely hear from that book; in fact, it only shows up twice among the many readings in our Lectionary: on one weekday every two years, and one Sunday every three years.

Chronicles is the very last book in the Jewish Bible.  What we read today are its very last verses.  And I’m going to guess that the anonymous author of Chronicles must have failed creative writing class, because the original ending of his book is absolutely horrible!

We’re told that God’s people—from the nobles and priests on down—had “added infidelity to infidelity,” picking up all the wicked ways of the peoples who lived around them.  Now, God had chosen them to be a light in the world: to be different from all the rest; to lead other nations to him.  Instead, they kept showing how much they preferred what they could do with their neighbors in the darkness—how much they wanted to be just like everybody else.

So how does God respond?  Out of his deep compassion he patiently kept sending his people messengers—the prophets.  “Early and often,” we’re told, did the Lord reach out, giving them plenty of time to change their hearts and to change their ways.  But they mocked his messengers, despised his warnings, and scoffed at his prophets.

Having exhausted all other options, God allows the people’s faithlessness to reach its logical conclusion.  The nations that Israel should have been converting now turn on it.  The Babylonians brutally attack Jerusalem.  They burn down the temple, tear down the city walls, kill many, and carry off those who remain as captives into exile.

The result will be more than a brief “time out.”  Interestingly, we’re told that the land must retrieve “its lost sabbaths.”  One of the people’s most grievous sins was failing to keep holy the Lord’s Day.  Because they didn’t heed the Lord’s command concerning the seventh day, now the Promised Land would enjoy a sabbath rest in their absence for seventy long years.

God’s people must have been asking themselves: Where is the Lord?  How could he let this happen?  It’s the Lord’s own temple that’s been destroyed!  It’s the Lord’s own land that’s been left in ruins!  It’s the Lord’s own people that have been killed and captured!

This Sunday’s psalm is their lament in captivity: By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept.  We hung our harps up in the trees for we were unable to sing.  What they’re expressing here, it seems to me, is more than understandable grief.   It’s a stubborn refusal to experience joy.  They have been so focused on the glories of their past that they can’t see how God is working among them right now, or where he might be leading them in the future.

That, my friends, is the original ending of Chronicles—and thus the ending of the entire Jewish Bible.  The end of the book appears to be the end of the whole story.  It’s certainly not, “And they all lived happily ever after.”

But with the Lord there’s always more to the story.  As the Hebrew Bible slowly took shape, editors added two more verses to the end of Chronicles—the very same two verses we find at the beginning of the Book of Ezra.  They tell us that Cyrus, king of Persia, issues a decree: all the people of Israel are now free to return home.  Even more, Cyrus commissions them to rebuild the temple, and he will (we’re told elsewhere) go so far as to provide the resources to do it.

It would be easy enough when considering this story—along with its parallels both throughout history and in our very own lives—and think that it’s evidence that God can and does fall in and out of love with his us…just as we do with one another, and just as we do with him.  How else do you explain their destruction and exile?  How else do you explain our own suffering and loss?

But that would be to miss the point entirely!

God does not abandon his people—never has, never will—despite how things sometimes feel.  The Lord remains faithful, even when we do not.  That’s because love isn’t something God does; love is who God is.  God is love—eternal love, unchanging love.

As Jesus reminds Nicodemus, God’s purpose is not to condemn the world, but to save it.  When God’s anger is inflamed, it’s not out of thirst for vengeance, nor is it aimed at destruction.  Rather, it’s God’s passion to set things right again.  Believe it or not, it’s just another expression of God’s merciful love.  Sometimes, things reach a point when only drastic measures will work—when only radical surgery will bring about true healing; when something old must be torn down in order for something new to be built up; when something must first die before it can rise again.  As the old proverb says, “The darkest hour is just before the dawn.”  Divine purification is most generally a painful process, but it’s an absolutely essential one.

Israel’s restoration after exile comes about in a way no one ever saw coming.  They’re returned to their homeland by a foreign—pagan—king: a worshipper of other gods; the conqueror of their conquerors.  Cyrus’ motives were likely mixed, at best—but God can make use even of these.  The Lord’s will will be done.

Jesus calls to mind another unexpected turn in his people’s history.  (You might say that such twists are one of God’s specialties.)  The Israelites are wandering forty years in the desert, and all along the way they grumble against God and against Moses.  They doubt the Lord’s good intentions toward them.  In light of this breach of confidence, this breaking of faith, poisonous snakes are sent among the people and, as a result, many of them die.

The people recognize their sin, and the Lord hears their cries.  He directs Moses to make a serpent out of bronze and mount it on a pole.  The Lord promises that any of those who have been bitten have only to look upon the bronze serpent to be healed.  You can imagine their reaction:  Really?  Another snake?  You want me to look what’s killing me in the eye?

But as God so often does, the thing that seems to us a harsh chastisement turns out to be the very thing that saves us.  And it’s precisely thus that you and I must face the Cross.  God constantly keeps before our eyes a vivid reminder of what sin really does.  Jesus will endure what our sins deserve—and, in so doing, save us from them.  In Jesus, God descends into our human suffering—as low as he could go—in order to lift us up from it.

Our parish finds itself in a moment of real sadness and loss.  In times like these, it’s easy enough to ask, “Where is God?”  However suffering comes to us—and come to us it does—we must trust that the same God who has brought us to it will also, always, see us through it.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.  No—God doesn’t condemn us.  But we do condemn ourselves if we won’t allow God’s love—in its most mysterious disguise—to work in our hurt and in our sorrow.

If The Malone Telegram’s “Today in History” column is to be believed, we have a most remarkable coincidence this weekend.  For it was precisely on March 10, 515 years before Christ, that the new temple in Jerusalem was completed after Israel’s exile.

You see, the sad end of Chronicles was not the end of the story, because God is always faithful.  The Lord’s love knows no end.

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