Bishop of Lake Charles
Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent
Sunday, March 22, 2009
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” John 3:14-15
While studying French as a student, I recall coming across an old saying: “Apprendre une langue est vivre de nouveau.” “To learn a language is to live again.” The expression caught my attention, but I did not grasp its meaning until many years later when in a foreign country I actually used this language in a conversation. To speak to someone else in his or her own language is indeed to live again. One enters a new world. Doors open that were shut before. New ideas enter the mind, a new way of understanding, and even a new approach to living. I have heard people express the same idea because of having met new friends or read a powerful book or visited a faraway place.
In some way Jesus is inviting Nicodemus in the Gospel to live again. The life that Jesus gives is far more powerful than the life of a new language, however. In fact the life that Jesus gives is “out of this world” because it comes from God. The life that Jesus comes to give is a share in God’s life. He says this quite plainly in the Gospel of St. John. “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). To teach Nicodemus, Jesus will begin with an episode taken from the Book of Numbers.
In that important text, God had sent poisonous serpents to punish the Hebrew people for having complained against Him. In answer to the prayers of Moses, God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent and mount it on a pole so that “… if anyone who has been bitten looks at it, he will recover” (Numbers 21:8). Jesus takes this image and uses it to instruct Nicodemus. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,” He says, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).
There is the word “life” again but this time defined as “eternal”. It is to give this life that Jesus came into the world, but life cannot be given without death. Clearly the Son of Man “lifted up” refers to the crucifixion. Jesus will be “lifted up” on the cross. Through His death will come life, “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). God the Father gives the Son totally. Jesus is not only born into the world so that He can teach and work miracles. The complete will of the Father is that Jesus should give of Himself in total sacrifice for the sins of the people. He says as much in the Gospel of St. Matthew. “Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).
Jesus simply came to die so that we might have life. The life that He gives is nothing less than a share in the life of God. We call this new life, Grace. St. Paul speaks of this also in our second reading: “God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4-5). How Jesus accomplishes this Divine work is what we are reflecting upon in Lent. As Jesus foretold so often, He came to suffer, die and rise. He invites us to do the same, and the faith to which Jesus is inviting Nicodemus and us is the language of the cross.
Faith is a new language. In learning it we live a new life, an entirely new life. Faith opens the door into a new world so that we can really live. “Whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God” (John 3:21). This new life of Grace makes it possible for us to walk in light, not in darkness. It is a new life where what we believe and what we do, what we profess and how we act, are consistent. It is a harmonious life.
If death brings to an end natural life, then in the new language of faith, death to self brings the possibility of supernatural life. This possibility exists because Jesus has taken natural death, embraced it totally, in every aspect of its suffering and torture, defied the devil, the Father of Lies, and risen from the dead, conquering death once and for all.
Jesus has left us the Seven Sacraments of the Church to offer us God’s life and saving Grace. Jesus will say this to Nicodemus as well. “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5). When I approach the Sacraments, I come with a new language. I come with a heart and mind that has been expanded and opened to a new life. God transforms me, He touches my life, and that life is never the same again.