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.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
These tender words of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning reflect a bit of the all-encompassing character of human love. But human love is a reflection of divine love and 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 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 could 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 today’s reading from Ephesians. He declares that God saves us through Christ. But why should God do this? Certainly not because we desire 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.”
During the first three weeks of Lent we considered various aspects of our covenant relationship with God and the privileges and responsibilities that flow from it. Today we turn our gaze on 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 is the “depth and breadth and height” of God’s love.
However—and it is a significant however—God does not force anything upon us. We are free to choose. We can accept God’s loving gestures, or we can refuse them. We see this in today’s readings. Before the Israelites could return to the land, they had to return to God. In the Gospel account, Nicodemus was told that people can choose to believe or not believe in Christ; they can prefer darkness to the light. There has always been a choice. Today the choice is ours to make. Will we make it?
Very few people explicitly choose against God, but can we honestly absolve ourselves of actions that resemble those described in the first reading? Haven’t we—today’s political leaders, religious leaders or ordinary people—sometimes “added infidelity to infidelity?” Do we heed the warnings of God’s messengers, or do we scoff at them—even silence them?
Are we not sometimes so entrenched in our own transgressions that we do not see how the consequences of our arrogance may cause our world to fall down upon us?
If we are honest, we must admit that this has indeed been the case in our personal lives; lately we recognize that it has happened in our church; it has certainly been the situation in our country and in the broader world. This may have been the case in the past and perhaps even in the present, but what about the future? We are not bound to perpetuate such deplorable situations. We are able to make new choices. So—what will we choose?
Despite this focus on our own sinfulness and the dire consequences that flow from it, the predominant theme for this Sunday is divine mercy. But we can comprehend its magnanimous character and boundless scope only if we see it in relation to our own culpability. As the readings show us how important it is to acknowledge our guilt and to return to God, they concentrate on God’s eagerness to enfold us in the warm embrace of divine mercy.
Confident of God’s merciful love, we are able to repent, return to God and start anew. Like the people of ancient Israel, we can indeed rebuild our broken lives and our disgraced church. We can create a world based on cooperation rather than competition, on respect rather than discrimination. God’s love has been offered; the choice is ours.