This Sunday is known as Laetare Sunday. Laetare is a Latin word meaning “rejoice.” Why rejoice? We are close to celebrating the Easter mystery. Jesus is risen. And because he lives, we live.
You may have heard about a man who went to his doctor with concerns about his health. “I feel terrible,” the patient told his physician. “In the mirror I see a balding head, sagging jowls, a pot belly, crooked teeth, bloodshot eyes…I'm a mess! I desperately need good news.” The doctor responded, “Well, the good news is you have perfect eyesight.”
Now, what “good news” does the word of God have for us today?
The author of the Book of Chronicles described the 5th century before Jesus. The writer interpreted ancient Israel’s history very simply in terms of fidelity and infidelity. God repeatedly asked the Hebrews to be faithful to their covenantal promises, and the Hebrews repeatedly broke these promises. So, the author interpreted the tragedies of ancient Israel in light of people’s infidelities. That’s why, the author wrote, Babylonia conquered Israel in the 6th century BC. But eventually God freed the Hebrews from their oppressors through a king of Persia who let the Hebrews return to their homeland.
The author here described God’s unconditional love for ancient Israel, not only in their triumphs but especially in their tragedies. And the author challenges us to trust in God’s love for us, no matter what happens to us in life, “good luck” or “bad luck.”
Paul in his letter to the Christian community in Ephesus describes God’s graciousness or goodness to us. God through Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, by the power of the Spirit has graced/gifted us with his friendship so that we can begin to participate in God’s life here, and fully beyond this earthly life. Paul here challenges us to remember our ultimate purpose: eternal life with God.
In the Gospel according to John, the author describes a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. The author plays on the theme of light and darkness. Nicodemus here recognizes Jesus as one who comes from God.
Then, Jesus uses an image to capture the purpose of his own life. Just as Moses lifted up an image of a snake on a pole so that all who looked on it could be saved, so Jesus had to be lifted up on a cross so that all could have eternal life. Jesus is indeed our savior: our way; our truth; and our light.
During these Lenten days, I invite you to reflect on the four recognized Gospels and their faces or portraits of Jesus so that you can imitate the virtues Jesus displayed.
Did you ever wonder what Jesus really looked like? You probably heard about the Shroud of Turin. There’s a tradition from at least the Middle Ages that says that the Shroud has the imprint of the crucified Jesus on the front and back of the cloth. That’s one portrait or face of Jesus.
The great painters of our own civilization give us different portraits of Jesus: da Vinci; Raphael; Michelangelo; El Greco; Rembrandt; Rouault. You may have your own favorite portrait of Jesus.
In describing Jesus, the four Gospel writers faced a unique challenge. How do they portray someone who is completely human and yet completely divine? Should they emphasize the divine, or the human?
Moreover, the Gospel writers wrote to different audiences; and so they wrote differently. So do we. For example, a college student: to parents might text: I spent the whole weekend in the library; to friends might text: I had a blast this weekend.
Which Gospel is most authentic, which best reflects the historical Jesus? They all do.
Let me focus on virtues Jesus displayed in the Gospels according to Mark and Luke.
Mark was the earliest, between 65-70 A.D., shortly after scores of Christians in Rome perished during the persecution by the Emperor Nero. Many Christians were asking: where is God in the midst of our sufferings? And possibly because so many disciples were being martyred, Mark thought he ought to write down who Jesus was, what he did and what he taught. By the way, tradition has it that Mark was a companion of Peter, a good source of information.
Mark is an action Gospel. The Jesus in Mark seems very approachable, a very human Jesus. We can easily relate to the feelings of Jesus: compassionate with the handicapped; tough with hypocrites. Jesus feels misunderstood by the disciples; angry in the temple with the buyers and traders; afraid in the Garden of Gethsemane; and yes, abandoned on the cross. Yes, the Jesus in Mark is the Messiah who suffers so that we can live forever. What happened to Jesus, Mark says, can happen to us too. To be a disciple, for Mark, may mean enduring sufferings; making sacrifices; giving generously to other people, e.g., our families, friends, colleagues and yes, even strangers.
Luke gives us still another portrait of Jesus. Luke was not an eyewitness. He was a Greek convert who wrote to Gentile Christians much like himself.
Luke gives women a prominent role in his gospel. Salvation is for everyone, Jews as well as Gentiles. He also emphasizes the Spirit.
Luke sees Jesus as a friend and advocate of the poor, the handicapped, incredibly compassionate toward so-called social outcasts. The Jesus in Luke is also forgiving. Remember the parable of the Prodigal Son. Even on the cross Jesus prays: Father, forgive them.
Yes, Jesus in Luke is always forgiving and compassionate. To be a disciple, for Luke, is to be a healer, a reconciler, a peacemaker; someone who tries to break down the barriers that divide people.
Above all, to be a disciple, for Luke, is not only to be a hearer of God’s Word, but like Mary—the disciple par excellence—a doer of God’s Word.
This is the point elsewhere in John’s gospel, with Jesus saying: “If I do not perform my Father’s works, do not believe me; but if I perform them, even if you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may realize that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” (Jn 10:37-38)
In fact, we have just begun a bible study on “Follow Me: Meeting Jesus in the Gospel of John” Wednesday mornings in our Parish Hall.
Can we have different portraits or faces of Jesus to inspire us in our life of discipleship with Jesus? Different ways in which to follow Jesus—self-sacrifice or generosity; forgiveness, healing and peacemaking. Yes, of course. Jesus, the God-man, is more than any one person can adequately describe in human language.
And so the question we might ask this Lenten season is this: how can I better reflect in my behavior and attitudes the attributes or virtues of Jesus highlighted in the Gospels?
So I invite you to meditate on the Gospels this Lenten season for they give us “portraits” of the virtues Jesus displayed, virtues worthy of imitation in the pursuit of our life of discipleship with Jesus.