Saturday, March 21, 2009

Cyrus and Jesus

(4th Sunday of Lent, B)

We arrive today, brothers and sisters, at the logical mid-point of our journey through Lent. As we begin, then, our ‘final ascent’ to the great mysteries of the Paschal Triduum, our proximity to those solemn days makes us rejoice. That’s the traditional name for this fourth Sunday of Lent, “Laetare Sunday.” It comes from the Entrance Antiphon for today’s Mass, Laetáre Ierúsalem, et convéntum fácite, omnes qui dilígitis eam…, “Rejoice, Jerusalem, and come together, all you who love her…” We rejoice today because we are drawing ever nearer to the New Jerusalem and to the saving works of the Anointed of God, Jesus Christ the Messiah.

But what does it mean that we call Jesus the Messiah or ‘Christ,’ as the term translates through the Greek of our New Testament? To help us understand what we mean by our confession of Jesus as the Christ, our first reading today goes a long way. Jesus of Nazareth was not first person in the history of the people of God to be called messiah. Indeed the second book of Chronicles relates to us the story of the messiah-ship of King Cyrus the Persian. So, understanding how Cyrus was a messiah can help us to understand how Jesus is the Messiah.

In the earlier part of the sixth century BC, Jerusalem was under siege by the Babylonians. The city and its Temple were eventually destroyed, and, according to their method of conquering other peoples, the Babylonians deported the leading classes back to Babylon. Thus the people of God were ejected from the land that God himself had given to them, and the reading tells us that this destruction and calamity came upon them because of their unfaithfulness. Thus began what is called the Babylonian Exile or Captivity. Now, as often happens in the history of this world, one superpower comes to replace another, and two generations after the deportation, the Persians replaced the Babylonians. Cyrus, the king of the Persians, was more tolerant toward other cultures and religions, and for reasons that are a little mysterious, decided to allow the Jews to return to Jerusalem and even to help them rebuild the Temple. This Temple, though it was almost completely renovated by Herod the Great shortly before the birth of our Lord, was the one that Jesus would have known.

So, let’s notice that pattern of what it means to be a messiah revealed in King Cyrus. He reverses the just punishment and deportation that the people of God had received for their unfaithfulness, returns them to the Promised Land, and even helps them to begin to restore their religious life centered, as it was, on the Jerusalem Temple.

In a wider and much more universal way, this is the same work accomplished by Jesus the Messiah. The Israelites suffered exile from the Promised Land because of their unfaithfulness to the covenants. In the same way, we, because of our sins, suffer from alienation from God and from the joyful and perfected humanity that God wants to give us. In his saving Passion and death, and in the Eucharist he gives us to stretch and commemorate this one sacrifice through history, Jesus restores us to our true and best humanity and reverses the alienation from God we have earned with our sins.

This is why we rejoice today, because even in the midst of all the misery and injustice and depression we have brought upon ourselves and the world with our sins, God in his mercy sends us the Christ, that we might look upon him and allow ourselves to be restored to the joy and justice God delights to give to the world.

1 comment:

Statius said...

Father, as these readings approach once more I'm in the middle of preparing a Bible study based upon them and I have found your homily very helpful.

Thank you for all your blogging - it is always thought-provoking and a pleasure to read. God bless you.