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Fourth Sunday of Lent: Of clowns and prophets

Today’s readings: 2 Chronicles 36, 14-16.19-23; Ephesians 2, 4-10; John 3, 14-21.

The theme of this fourth Sunday of Lent is God’s unfailing love for us all. The Scriptures speak of a gratuitous love for which, as St Paul affirms, “nobody can claim the credit”. “We are God’s work of art,” he continues, created to live the good life. This is what we normally call the good news about our salvation, about the love of God that heals and restores our well-being. The problem is that this supposedly good news is taken by many to be fake news.

This recalls Soren Kierkegaard’s parable of the clown. According to this story, a travelling circus in Denmark caught fire. The manager thereupon sent the clown, who was already dressed and made up for the performance, into the neighbouring village to fetch help, especially as there was a danger that the fire would spread across the fields of dry stubble and engulf the village itself.

The villagers took the clown’s shouts simply for an excellent piece of advertising, meant to attract as many people as possible to the performance. They applauded the clown and laughed till they cried. People thought he was playing his part splendidly. The clown had a very serious piece of news but was not taken seriously.

Why are we as Christians not taken seriously when we speak? Maybe in this day and age what counts is not what we say as much as how we live and who we are. As the book of Chronicles in the first reading reports, this happened also to Israel when, at the time of the prophets, the people ridiculed the messengers of God and despised their words.

The exile narrative from Chronicles presents the Babylonian captivity of the Jews as a consequence of choices made and of a contract broken. Jerusalem was demolished, the Temple was burned down, and the survivors were deported to Babylon where they were deprived of their religion for 70 years.

But when the time came, “the Lord roused the spirit of Cyrus, king of Persia” to facilitate the people’s return to a newly built Jerusalem and to a restored vision and relationship with their God. They had wrongly believed that God’s love could be taken for granted. They literally abused God and His love and this made them all the more vulnerable and weak. In fact, they were won over and deported.

It was their weakness, their indifference, their taking God for granted that betrayed them and made them eventually pay a price. Of course, the trick has always been to distinguish the real clowns from the prophets. God, as the reading goes, kept tirelessly sending them messenger after messenger. To no avail.

Even today we have our modern-day cultured despisers of religion. For a long time now we have been made to believe that religion is the enemy of science and rationality and that it is a mere anachronism. As authors Gillian McCann and Gitte Bechsgaard wrote recently in their book The Sacred in Exile. What it Really Means to Lose Our Religion: “we are perhaps the first society in history where a large proportion of the populace attempts to live without any concept of the transcendent”.

The problem on our side is that, like Nicodemus in the gospel, we think that believing in God’s love is simply a truth of doctrine to which one assents notionally.

According to the latest Faith and Church Attendance Survey Report, which gives a snapshot of the faith of the Maltese, 95 per cent of those interviewed claimed to believe in God. It was the same story with Nicodemus, a Pharisee, who claimed to believe in Jesus but kept going to him under cover of darkness for fear of his peers. His non-decision made him weaker.

This can amount simply to intellectual belief failing to translate itself into a healing faith. What really counts is whether our lives are in tune with the deeper reality, the reality that Kiekegaard’s clown kept badgering about. The more we receive and contain God’s love, the more we connect with our own selves at that deeper level of our being.

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