Sunday, April 7, is the Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year C). Mass Readings: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126: 1-6; Philippians 3:8-14; John 8:1-11.
It is difficult to overstate the jarring effect that our first reading from the Book of Isaiah would have had on the Israelites in exile. Proclaiming God’s message to the people, the prophet exclaims: “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago remember not; see I am doing something new!” (Isaiah 43:18-19). This might not sound very radical, but keep in mind that these words are spoken in relation to the foundational event of the people of Israel, the Exodus. This is a bit like someone saying that we as Americans should no longer remember the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July — no matter what the reason, we would be likely to scoff at the notion that we should stop remembering this foundational event in our country’s history.
The boldness of the words spoken by the prophet has a purpose, however: It arrests the people’s attention so that they would consider two facets of God’s miraculous intervention in their lives. First, the very fact that they were exiled to the land of Babylon (about 60 miles south of modern-day Baghdad) and survived there as a people, maintaining their identity and beliefs, was nothing short of miraculous; it was a sign that God had continued to extend his solicitous care to them by holding them together. Second, these words revealed to the people that God was about to intervene for them in a wonderful new way: Just as God opened a path through the sea in order to bring the people out of Egypt, so, too, was he about to open a way through the desert to bring them out of Babylon. In other words, God’s saving activity was not something relegated to events long ago when the people were in Egypt, but was something that they were going to experience — and to some degree had already experienced — in their present-day lives.
There is one further aspect of this oracle that illumines the nature of God’s intervention for his people; namely, that it requires a certain amount of cooperation from the people. As the oracle implies, although God would provide the path through the desert, the people would have to choose to walk along it. The people were required to demonstrate their profound trust in God since, after all, traversing the impenetrable Arabian desert was no less impossible than walking through the Red Sea on dry ground — to do so without adequate supplies would mean certain death. In both the Exodus and the return from exile, though, God is the one who provides for their every need: “for I put water in the desert and rivers in the wasteland for my chosen people to drink” (Isaiah 43:20).
The practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving that we engage in during Lent are, one might say, prophetic, in that they are a means of redirecting our attention to the saving action of God that is present in our daily lives. God’s saving activity is not something that only took place long ago during Christ’s time on earth or during the apostolic age. Rather, it is something we still experience today, especially in the sacraments. Further, these Lenten penitential practices dispose us to seek more readily the sacrament of penance, that sacrament through which Jesus provides us a path out of the captivity of sin, just as God provided a path out of Babylonian captivity for the Jewish people — we simply need to respond to Christ’s grace by choosing to walk along it.
Dominican Father Jordan Schmidt is an instructor
in sacred Scripture at the
Pontifical Faculty of the
Immaculate Conception at the
Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.