Communion in the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church would truly mark the end of exile

Father John A. Kiley

It is certainly rare that a pagan king be praised at all in the Sacred Scriptures and definitely not in the Old Testament. So, the laudatory words written about the Persian King Cyrus in the Second Book of Chronicles are worth a consideration. The text reads, “Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia: ‘All the kingdoms of the earth the LORD, the God of heaven, has given to me, and he has also charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever, therefore, among you belongs to any part of his people, let him go up, and may his God be with him!’” The release of the Jews from 70 years of exile in Babylon was clearly one of salvation history’s great acts of benevolence, deservedly sealing the status of King Cyrus as a pre-figure of Christ himself, the ultimate liberator. Cyrus had little self-interest in releasing the Jews from servitude. It was a complete act of generosity and magnanimity on his part, clearly foreshadowing the ultimate loving kindness God Himself would make real through the saving work of his Son, Jesus Christ.
Certainly, Cyrus is not the only generous figure hailed in Scripture. In the second reading at Mass this coming fourth Sunday of Lent, St. Paul, in a cascade of praise exalts the infinitely generous and totally unmerited handiwork of God the Father in extending release from sin and offering eternal life to once alienated mankind. The apostle instructs the Ephesians and all believers that God is “rich in mercy” and that he acted “because of the great love he had for us” and, yes, “even when we were dead.” It was God who “brought us to life” and who “raised us up” and who “seated the heavens.” And just to be sure the reader knows that all this was done out of undeserved kindness, St. Paul adds emphatically, “By grace you have been saved!”
The Apostle cannot account for all this benevolence except by understanding it as part of the “immeasurable riches” that God in his “kindness” has made available through Jesus Christ. Again, in the next line, St. Paul insists again, “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” Yes, redemption is available entirely and exclusively through God’s grace, God’s kindness, God’s goodwill. And just to be sure, the author asserts, “This is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.” Clearly, the community of believers is God’s “handiwork,” founded, not on mankind’s resources, but entirely on “the good works that God has prepared in advance.” All the Church has to do is “live in them.” The Christian Church is indeed a Divinely created community, fashioned entirely by God, reliant completely on his grace, sustained wholly by his generosity. God is the sole source of redemption and salvation. Mankind may make no boast.
Yet, the Gospel passage this coming Sunday from St. John’s account of Christ’s dialogue with the hesitant Nicodemus is a clear reminder that the Father’s abundant generosity toward mankind was realized and achieved exclusively through the preaching, ministry and self-sacrifice of his Divine Son Jesus Christ. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” St. John thus emphasizes that the love of God, while certainly lavish, became accessible to believers only through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the mediator between God and man, the bestower of God’s immense mercies, later celebrated so plentifully by St. Paul. Christ is the link between the Father’s loving kindness and humanity’s sinful state. It is only through him and his ministry “that the world might be saved.”
When King Cyrus freed the Jews and encouraged them to return to Jerusalem, he also charged the former exiles “to build him a house in Jerusalem,” which would of course be the reconstruction of the destroyed temple in the heart of the city. The returned Jews would truly not be at home until they had restored the heart of their religious life, the temple with its prayers and festivals and offerings and sacrifices. Temple worship made God accessible to the Jewish nation.
The generosity of Cyrus would yield in significance to the benevolence of God the Father who would release humanity from the exile brought about by Adam’s sin and lead mankind to embrace the new temple, Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church, with its efficacious prayers and festivals and offerings and sacrifices. Communion in the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church would truly mark the end of exile.