THE LITURGY OF THE WORD
FOR THE LENTEN SEASON
(Cycle B – Year 2000)
This year in Lent the first reading of Sunday Masses takes us by the hand through the great stages of salvation history (Gen 9,8-15; Gen 22,1-18; Ex 20,1-17; 2 Chronicles 36,14-16.19-23; Jer 31,31-34).
The first Sunday remembers God’s covenant with Noah and with all the earth after the flood (Gen 9,8-15). This is the account that comes from the so called “priestly” tradition that goes back to the times of the exile, when Israel had lost everything, and that insists on the power of God to rise up again out of nothing and death. The object of this tradition is to show in the past the firm foundations on which can be built the community of Israel. The existence of the universe after the flood, that which pertains to the destroyed Israel in exile, and that to which we will belong today, depends totally on the unilateral covenant of God with Noah; that is to say, the foundation of our world is indestructible because it has been established by God. The violence of living beings will not be able to do anything to destroy the world.
The second Sunday will be proclaimed the narrative of the sacrifice of Isaac (Gen 22,1-18), that comes from a tradition that was developed around the 9th to 8th centuries BC, offers us the other foundation of salvation history: the faith of man and woman that abandon themselves unconditionally to God. Abraham had left everything to obey God, had sacrificed all of his past to follow the Word of the Lord (Gen 12,1-9); now he has to sacrifice also his entire future, offering his son, with which he was burying all of his descendants. Abraham’s faith shows that only in obedience to God’s Word can the past and future be recuperated, that history has only meaning when man and woman abandon themselves totally to God, capable of making life rise up in the midst of death. This page of Genesis also points to the sacrifice of Christ. It has been traditional to see in the sacrifice of Isaac a pre-figuration of the Cross. The words of Paul: “God did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for the sake of all of us” (Rm 8,31) seem to be inspired by this account of Genesis.
The third Sunday, the Decalogue will be proclaimed (Ex 20,1-17), more commonly known as “the Ten Commandments.” In reality, in the Bible they are not called so, but rather “the ten words.” Words with which God proposes to the liberated people from Egypt’s slavery the way of authentic liberty and that sum up all of the will of God for Israel (Dt 4,2; 5,22; 13,1). They are valid words also for the Christian of today. Jesus himself will say: “Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law…I have not come to abolish it but to complete it” (Mt 5,17), and when the rich young man asked him what he ought to do to have eternal life he will respond: “if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Mt 19,17). God promises on his part at Sinai to converse the gift of liberty for the people; the people, for their part, will have to follow these “ten words,” that will preserve them from all idolatry, from all egoism and all injustice against their neighbor. Only in this way will Israel be free. This solemn page of Sinai can be a resume of our Lenten examination of conscience to rediscover the liberating God and our neighbor, and to reach fully authentic liberty.
The fourth Sunday we will read the final page of that great historiographic word of priestly origin, the “book of Chronicles” (2 Ch 36,14-16.19-23). It is a type of interpretive epilogue of theological character of the entire historical journey of Israel: the people have been unfaithful to God, for this reason have lost everything, and have met death. The basic idea is still valid for us today. Sin distances us from God and is source of desolation and death in our own lives and in the history of the world. The last words of the book, nevertheless, let a hope be brought out that God has the last word and it is always life and not death: “Whoever there is among you of all his people, may his God be with him” (v. 23). The text speaks of the return to the land, of a new presence of the Lord. History will continue in hope because God has not totally abandoned his people.
The fifth Sunday offers us one of the most important and beautiful readings of the Old Testament that speaks of the surpassing of the covenant at Sinai through a “new covenant” based on the heart of man and woman and now not on tablets of stone (Jer 31,31-34). Before the constant infidelity of Israel that has exiled them, God will intervene in a new way to put his law in the very interior of man and woman, pardoning sin and making possible his and her fidelity. The text prepares us to live the celebration of the Easter mystery, the mystery of the “new covenant” in Christ, foundation of our faith (Lk 22,19-29; 2 Cor 3,3-6; Heb 8, 8-12).
The Gospel texts that will be proclaimed this year during the Sundays of Lent offer us an opportunity to enter the depths of Christ’s mystery (Mk 1,12-15; 9,2-10; Jn 2,13-25; 3,14-21; 12,20-33).
The first Sunday we contemplate Jesus in the desert put to the test as all men and women (Mk 1,12-13). Mark presents him as the beginning of a new humanity, as a new Adam that “was with beasts” as the first man in the garden of Eden in Gen 2, and as the Messiah that will bring universal peace (Is 11). A pacific world is described in which the new and perfect Adam, Christ Jesus, reestablishes the harmony of the cosmos that has been broken with humanity’s sin. The recreation of this world is possible only when men and women welcome Jesus’ invitation in Galilee: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the gospel” (Mk 1,15). The transformation that supposes the arrival of the kingdom is not something magical but that which demands the conversion (in Greek: metanoia) of man and woman. It is the fundamental exigency with which each one responds to the arrival of the kingdom and to the gospel of Christ, it is the synthesis of entire Christian existence. Conversion is not simple repentance, nor is it founded in feeling. It is the decision by which man and woman change their mentality, their attitudes and conduct, welcoming joyfully the gospel to follow Christ, rediscovering themselves children before God and brothers and sisters before others.
The second Sunday is read the passage of the Transfiguration of the Lord on the mount before some of the disciples (Mk 9,2-10). The text describes a true “cristophany” in the style of the theophanies of the Old Testament (voice, cloud, splendor of light, heavenly persons symbols of the law and prophecy). The experience is offered to the disciples in the context of the announcement of the passion and death of the Lord (Mk 8,31), as an anticipated Easter apparition, destined like the post-Easter apparitions to illuminate and reveal to the Church the mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ. In the text it is decisive above all “the voice” (word of God) that is heard from the cloud (symbol of divine transcendence): “this is my beloved Son, listen to him” (v. 7). It is an invitation to enter upon the way of the Cross-of Jesus as the only way that leads to life and resurrection. It is necessary to share the humanity and way of the death of Christ, to share in his glory.
The third Sunday presents us with Christ as a “new temple.” To superficial and interested religion that some groups lived around the Temple of Jerusalem, Jesus will oppose faith in his person as the foundation of a new religious experience. God cannot be present in a material temple when this now is not the “meeting place” but a place of small business and superficial superstitions. The true Temple in which men and women find God is the body of Jesus that will be destroyed and in three days will rise again (Jn 2,19.21). Authentic worship is not realized in a temple of stone but in communion of life with Christ glorified. True worship is transformed existence in love, in the image of the Lord that has given his life for all.
The fourth Sunday we will hear part of the nocturnal dialogue of Jesus with Nicodemus (3,14-21). Christ is presented as the greatest manifestation and living sign of the love of the Father that “loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” and “God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but so that through him the world might be saved” (3,16.17). Those that reject him, “have preferred darkness to the light” (v. 19), “have preferred darkness to the light because their deeds were evil” (v. 20), find irredeemably failure and death: “whoever does not believe is judged already” (v. 18). For the Gospel of John, there are only two possibilities: life or death, light or darkness. The plan of Jesus is the way to life, Himself is “way, truth and life” (Jn 14,6). Whoever believes, that is to say, whoever adheres totally to the plan of Jesus will not be condemned, in other words, they will begin already in this life to enjoy true life that is the fruit of the Spirit that Jesus possesses “without measure” and that he gives to those who believe in him (Jn 3,34). This division of humanity before the plan of Christ finds its decisive movement in the “lifting up of the cross”: the Son of Man has to be raised on high, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (Jn 3,15). At the cross of Jesus is born a new humanity that has adhered to his plan of life and light: “and when I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all people to myself” (Jn 12,32).
The fifth Sunday of Lent continues the reflection about the elevation of Jesus on the cross (Jn 12,20-33). For the gospel of John, the grand revelation of the mystery of Christ is brought about when “the Hour” arrives (2,4; 7,30; 8,20; 12,23; 13,1; 17,1). “The Hour” is the moment of the cross, that for John is also the moment of exaltation and glory. The gospel of this Sunday offers us a very beautiful catechesis about the meaning of Easter that we will celebrate liturgically within a few days, through various images that sum up the gospel of John: The grain of wheat (v. 24) symbolizes the giving of life by love, as Christ did on the cross, that it is way of fecundity and full realization; the grasping or giving up of life (v. 25) is the criteria that Jesus offers for reaching eternal life: only whoever gives him or herself totally, lives totally; glorification (vv. 28-29) is an expression of John’s gospel to refer to the cross, where God will show his glory glorifying his Son, that is to say, revealing in him the power of salvation; the elevation of the cross (v. 32) is paradoxically martyrdom and exaltation (the Greek very ypsóo means both things), and the force of love and life that attracts to Christ all of humanity; the judgement of this world (v. 31) is an expression that indicates the condemnation that the world attracts to itself upon rejecting Jesus’ plan of life.