Reading 1: 2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 137:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6
Reading 2: Ephesians 2:4-10
Gospel: John 3:14-21
How do I love thee?
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
my soul can reach when feeling out of sight
for the ends of being and ideal grace.
Such tender words of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning reflect a bit of the all-encompassing character of human love. Still, human love is only a reflection of divine love, though it somehow participates in it. For this reason, these words could well be placed in the mouth of God this Sunday, for all three readings illustrate God’s merciful love.
The first reading opens with a dispassionate chronicling of the people’s willful violation of their covenant relationship with God. It tells how, in response to their callous behavior, God allowed their enemies to triumph over them. But this was not the end for them. Once they had repented – and in moving words the psalm response has captured their sentiments of repentance – God allowed them to return. Their return (“return” and “repent” come from the same Hebrew word) is first a return to God and then a return to Jerusalem, where they might live a life dedicated to God.
The extent of God’s love is recounted in the gospel. There we read that the only son of God was sent into the world in order to save it. In John’s Gospel, “the world” frequently refers to that dimension of human life that is antagonistic toward the things of God. That is not the meaning here. Rather, the writer insists that God loves the world, seeks to draw people out of darkness into light, and does whatever is necessary to save them from their own sinfulness.
Paul reiterates this teaching about divine love in the reading from Ephesians. He declares that God saves us through Christ. But why should God do this? Certainly not because we deserve it. In fact, Paul claims that God saved us while we were still in our transgressions, or mired in our sinfulness. God saves us out of mercy, that covenant characteristic known in the Hebrew tradition as “loving kindness” or “steadfast love.” God’s merciful love alone marks the “ends of being and ideal grace,” to use Browning’s words. Today’s readings turn our gaze onto God’s covenant relationship with us, and we are astounded at what we perceive. Despite our infidelity, God remains faithful to us; despite the steps we take toward our own destruction, God continues to offer us a second chance at life. Such are the “depth and breadth and height” of God’s love.
However, with all of the suffering – what we consider “innocent suffering” – we have endured this year, we might question this love. Whether God directly generated the suffering or allowed it to happen, God is still somehow involved in it. How do we balance the claims of these readings with the reality of life in today’s world?
Our biblical tradition in both the Old and New Testaments employs a metaphor that offers a religious way of holding these two in balance. It is called “the birth pangs.” The fundamental grounding of this understanding is a firm conviction of God’s undying love for us. This is the love described in today’s readings. Flowing from this love is God’s desire for what is best for us – that we might thrive in this life and enjoy the fulfillment and peace that surpasses even our own desires. In order to attain God’s desire for us, we must endure struggle and pain and sorrow. However it is “like a woman in labor…” (Isa 13:8), “who when she has given birth to a child…longer remembers the pain because of her joy that a child has been born into the world” (John 16:21). This metaphor holds love and suffering in balance, and it promises new life.
Today’s readings remind us that the ground of our being is God’s love. When suffering comes, we are the ones who decide whether it will simply burden us or transform us. In other words, will we simply endure this pandemic, this racial inequality, this social alienation? Or will we be transformed by it? Made new people? Will we take steps to resolve the ruptures in our lives, in our church, in our country, in our world? Or will we simply lick our wounds? It is our choice. Like the people of ancient Israel, we can indeed rebuild our broken lives and our fractured country, our bleeding church. We can give birth to a world based on cooperation rather than competition, on respect rather than discrimination. God’s love has been offered; the choice is ours.