March 18, 2012
Scripture readings: 2 Chronicles 36.14-17a, 19-23; Psalm 137.1-6; Ephesians 2.4-10; John 3.14-21.
This homily is pretty well based on reflections on this Sunday’s Scripture readings by Peter Feldmeier as found in America, the national catholic weekly published by U.S. Jesuits.
In his conversation with Nicodemus, as we find it in this Sunday’s Gospel, you hear Jesus say:
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” There are two other places in John’s Gospel (8:28 and 12:32) where Jesus uses that same expression of “being lifted up”. It suggests that it was an important image for him; after all, it is mentioned three times in the same Gospel.
That “being lifted up”, where does that come from? It comes from the time that the Israelites were wandering in the desert (Numbers 21:4-9). They complained that God had led them out into the wilderness to die. As punishment, God sent venomous serpents among them and many die of the poisonous bite. Then God instructed Moses to make an image of the snake, put it on a pole and hold it up. Anyone who was bitten and who looked upon the image would recover and be healed.
Now Jesus uses that image of Moses and the serpent to speak of his own death on the cross and the salvation that comes from God through him. Don’t forget we are in John’s Gospel. Indeed, that “being lifted up” refers to his crucifixion, which in John’s Gospel is synonymous with his glorification/exaltation. It shows how central the reality of the cross is for us Christians. The way the cross “functions” in John’s Gospel, the way Jesus speaks about it, the central place we give it in churches… reflects and is an indication that there is something about the cross that makes it “both an icon of God and a magnet for our souls”.
So what is it about the cross that draws us, that reveals the divine presence…, that heals us when we gaze upon it?
For Jesus, the cross is his hour, the cross is his glory, the cross is the ultimate expression of how “God so loved the world” as mentioned in the following lines in today’s Gospel and as so beautifully commented on in today’s second reading. The cross is the face of God as we know God through Jesus Christ. By making himself a total offering Jesus expresses the radiant light of divine love…. His glory is in his self-emptying… His wealth exists as gift.
Then believing in Jesus… becomes an entering into that world of his… to find life in all its fullness “Where I am, there also will my servant be” (John 12:26)… entering into the gift of Jesus = to know and live his love.
Towards the end of his reflections Feldmeier (the author on which this homily is based) asks three questions that at first I did not pay much attention to, but slowly they surfaced for me as both exciting and unsettling, as disturbing and inspiring:
- Have you ever forgiven someone for something really serious, and done so freely and completely, as pure gift?
- Have you ever given yourself over to another’s need so completely that thoughts about yourself vanished entirely?
- Have you ever experienced love of God so completely that you seemed to disappear and what remained seemed only divine?
If you answered yes to any of these, you know something of the great mystery of the cross.
In all fairness, I must say that I am only on the way to ‘knowing the great mystery of the cross’.
But, then, the season of Lent is the grace-filled season in which we are urged to progress on ‘knowing the great mystery of the cross’.