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Breath of the Spirit Reflection: Practicing Benevolence During Lent

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March 14th, 2021: The Fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday)

2 Chronicles 36.14-16; 19-23
Ephesians 2.4-10
John 3.14-21

These reflections are based on the Sunday readings from Lectionary Cycle B in the Church's liturgical calendar. If your community is using the Scrutinies, you may be using Cycle A readings this Sunday.

Reflection from Jon Schum

First and Second Chronicles (c. 400 BCE) are considered “sacred history,” i.e., less concerned with precise detail than with the divine dimensions of the unfolding story. The Chronicler’s God was not an obscure or hidden God. More than anywhere else God was experienced in worship, epitomized by the finest achievement of the Davidic dynasty, the Temple in Jerusalem. Today’s reading, the very end of Second Chronicles, summarizes the epic destruction of the Holy City, the demolition of the Temple, and the ensuing Babylonian exile (587-539 BCE). The Chronicler places the blame for all this on the rampant infidelity of the people and its religious leaders.

Yet there is a ray of hope. The Babylonians are conquered by the Persian King Cyrus, who releases the Israelite people from captivity to return to Jerusalem. Cyrus proclaims, “Whoever, therefore, among you belongs to any part of God’s people, let them go up, and may their God be with them.” These words were meant to inspire; for, in spite of human failings, God continues to beckon to the people and renews the covenant with them. Divine intent can even be achieved even through the devices of a foreign royal power, and new life is breathed into the covenant.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, and, like every seeker, there are questions. The lofty and mystical prose of the fourth gospel, embodied in Jesus’ teaching, exhibits a highly developed theological reflection. For example, the image of the Only Begotten One being “lifted up” seems to be a clear reference to the cross, but the evangelist substitutes a verb that means to be “lifted up in glory.”

“God so loved the world as to give the Only Begotten One, that whoever believes may not die but may have eternal life” (John 3:17). God’s love exalts and we exalt in God’s love. For God speaks the Word with such perfect love and clarity that the Word becomes one of us and one with us. The incarnate Word is not one of condemnation but of redemption, of a covenant renewed again and again.

God’s intention is clear: God so loved the world. Although the image of the world in the gospels is often associated with temptation and sin, here we see the world as completely loved and lovable. The whole created order and all who inhabit it are within the divine embrace. It begs the question, “Are we not also called to love the world?”

As I write in mid-February, we have watched disturbing visual testimony of a mob rampage through our nation’s Capitol. This temple of democracy was trashed and the lives of our elected representatives, family and staff members, and law enforcement personnel were assaulted and threatened with injury and death. Five persons died. We find ourselves in a dispiriting kinship with other global threats to freedom and self-determination. To reframe the question: “If this is also the world we inhabit, how are we to love it?”

A good deal of Lenten messaging is around salvation and redemption. Lent aims us in the direction of Triduum events, in which we commemorate the God who so loved the world that God handed over the Beloved One that we might be saved. Not condemned but saved...from ourselves and our own schemes. We can characterize this as redemptive love. Redemptive love speaks the language of possibility and deliverance. Redemptive love liberates, reclaims, and restores. Redemptive love originates in the unrelenting divine desire to be in covenant with us. When we have wandered, it calls us back to the commonality and solidarity that we have in Christ and share with the whole of humankind.

In his encyclical letter Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis refers to the Latin name for one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit: benevolentia, “an attitude that ‘wills the good’ of others; it bespeaks a yearning for goodness, an inclination towards all that is fine and excellent, a desire to fill the lives of others with what is beautiful, sublime, and edifying” (paragraph 112). Perhaps benevolence, the virtue, is the practice of redemptive love.

Although not a common word in daily conversation benevolence is rich in meaning: generosity of spirit, goodwill, compassion. My observation over time is that many in the LGBTQI community have learned benevolence because they have too often suffered the opposite. We take to heart the words of St. Paul, writing from prison, as he extols the “immeasurable riches of God’s grace…for we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance.” God so loves the world.

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Jon Schum and his husband Ron Lacro are longtime Dignity Boston members. Jon has served on its board and liturgy committee and is one of the chapter's ordained presiders. For many years he supervised and provided arts-based therapeutic programming for an elder services agency in Boston. He is currently a co-facilitator of the Aging with Dignity caucus.

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