The full text of the readings is here.
1. For understanding the First Reading from 2 Chron 36, it’s important to realize that the First Readings for Lent in Year B are cycling through some high points of salvation history—a review as we prepare for Easter. So we’ve had (1) the covenant with Noah, the (2) covenant with Abraham, (3) the covenant at Sinai through
Moses, and now this week, we are reviewing (4) Israel’s failure to keep the Sinai covenant, and thus the subsequent exile. After all, exile was prophesied as the consequence of failing to keep the Sinai covenant: see Lev 26 and Deut 27. Next week we will read from Jeremiah (5) the prophecy of the New Covenant, and then celebrate its inauguration from Passion Sunday to Easter.
The reading from 2 Chronicles 36 mentions specifically the exile as a result of failure to keep the Sabbath:
"Until the land has retrieved its lost sabbaths,
during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest
while seventy years are fulfilled."
This is not merely the Sabbath day, but specifically the Sabbath Year (see Exod 23:10-13; Deut 15, Lev 25) during which even the land was supposed to rest. The Sabbath concept was not restricted to a weekly observance, but was a system of rest and honoring God that was written into the Israelite liturgical calendar on multiple levels (again, see Lev 23 and 25). The Sabbath was the “sign” of the covenant in a particular way (see Exod 31:16-17). Profanation of the Sabbath, then, was a particularly grave form of breaking the covenant whose fundamental law we heard proclaimed last week.
Christ is our Sabbath. He comes to bring the eschatological Sabbath Year (the “year of the Lord’s favor”, see Luke 4:19) as Isa 61:1-2 prophesied. He came to bring forgiveness “seventy times seven”—a perfect Sabbatical number, symbolizing the perfection of rest with God.
2. The connection of the Responsorial Psalm is obvious. Having read of the exile of Israel, we now sing one of the great psalms lamenting the exile. Christians need to remember that, while in this earthly life, we are still in a kind of exile: may we never forget our home, Jerusalem, and yet our citizenship is in the Jerusalem above, not here below (Gal 4:26): “And after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of they womb, Jesus …”
3. The Second Reading emphasizes that all salvation is the mercy and grace of God, not our effort.
There is an analogy here between the experience of Israel and the experience of each one of us personally. For Israel, their exile was a national death—there history was over and done (see Ezek 37). Yet God, through no goodness of their own—they didn’t even repent in exile! (see Daniel 9:13)—resurrected the people of Israel and returned them to their land, through mercy expressed by Cyrus of Persia.
In the same way, though there is nothing deserving on our part, we receive grace through Christ to live a new life, indeed, to participate in eternal life even now, here below. Even now, in a mystical reality, we have been lifted up to the Jerusalem which is above, where Christ sits enthroned on the throne of David (Ps 122:5). This does not mean we are passive: God has prepared good works for us to do. These are also a part of our salvation, which is not simply a matter of “easy-believism.”
4. The Gospel begins with an example from Israel’s history:
Jesus said to Nicodemus:
"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."
The incident being recalled has similarities to the exile mentioned in the First Reading. Israel was virtually in a state of death: the people were in danger of being destroyed by a plague of snakes. Moses raised the bronze serpent on the pole, and all who looked to it were restored to life. So it was an account of national resurrection.
In what follows, there is a personal application to us. Just as Israel was restored to life by gazing on the serpent lifted up, we may be restored to eternal life by gazing on Christ.
The following verses in John 3 constitute one of the clearest and most beautiful statements of the Gospel to be found in the New Testament. It’s hard to treat adequately, but let’s isolate one theme: the theme of light:
“But whoever lives the truth comes to the light,
so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.”
In Lent, we are preparing for Baptism (for those in RCIA) and the rest of us are preparing for the renewal of our Baptismal commitment. Let’s remember that Baptism is not merely the sacrament of water but of light. I am convinced this baptismal catechesis of “light” is behind the narrative of the healing of the man born blind in John 9, who sees the light after washing in the water. The Fathers called baptism “the enlightenment.” As we journey toward Easter, let’s make every effort to “expose our works” to the mercy of God in the confessional, and show proper penitence by our Lenten mortifications, so that we will not be ashamed to walk toward “the light” bestowed through Baptism at the Easter Liturgy.