Despite my deep interest in history, the commemoration of the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War last year prompted me to realise how little I knew about it. In order to fill in the gaps, I bought a book on the Great War and started reading it. Very soon I noticed a distinctive difference between what I thought I knew and what the book presented. The differences weren’t about the facts but about their interpretation. The book had been written by a British historian and, inevitably, it presented a British perspective. My own point of view had been shaped by a different perception of the Great War. In the 18th century my home country was effectively erased from the maps of Europe, having been gradually divided up between Russia, Germany and Austro-Hungary. 120 years later, when the fate of those three powers was sealed in the Great War, Poland recovered her independence – one of the unforeseen and unexpected results of the War.
Today’s first reading from the Book of Chronicles presents a sort of summary of the history of the people of Israel, leading to their defeat by the Babylonian Empire, the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, and culminating in their deportation to a foreign country a thousand miles away with no right of return. The end of this biblical passage mentions a Persian king, Cyrus, who conquered Babylon 70 years later, and who allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. Many historians describe that period as part of a cycle in the power struggle between Middle Eastern empires, with the insignificant kingdom of Israel caught up in it. In the Bible, that tragic period of Israel’s history was interpreted as punishment for the nation’s unfaithfulness to God; the punishment, though harsh, eventually led to the people’s repentance and to their being forgiven. From a wider historical point of view, that particular period of time in Israel’s history was hugely significant. The tragic chain of events effectively created and consolidated the Jewish religious and national identity, a positive outcome it is hard to overrate.
In today’s gospel Jesus gives a hint of his own violent death on the cross. However, its importance for him is the reason behind it, so he explains it extensively to Nicodemus. And what is that reason? Jesus explains it in a very clear way: ‘God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life. For God sent his Son […] not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved.’ It’s an extremely noble attitude, springing from the love of God for humankind, for each and every one of us. But this love is brought out through the long and painful physical and mental suffering of the innocent Man, subjected to the cruelty and violence of those He came to save. It was so difficult to understand that even his own disciples, trained over three years and told many times about it, lost faith at the time of the Crucifixion. It took them some time to get over it and to embrace that otherwise incomprehensible truth of God’s love.
In our everyday lives we come across similar difficulties time and again when hardships, pain, suffering or loss raise question marks in our minds. In our short-term perception we understandably concentrate on the very happening in the present moment, often failing to see it in a wider context. Our common sense equates wellbeing with God’s blessing, and hardships with lack of it. Our mood can swing from euphoria when everything is going well, to desperation when something is going wrong. It’s perfectly understandable but in fact, in this way, we can miss something really important: hardships can bring out the best in us, while a success story can corrupt and spoil people. We don’t have much influence over the things that happen to us; but we can decide what to do with them.