LECTIONARY REFLECTION | HOLY CROSS | SEPTEMBER 14, 2019
I have recently been emphasizing that much Christian teaching and practice today focuses on “right doing,” while other Christian teaching and practice (e.g., Contemplative tradition) throughout the centuries has emphasized the importance of spiritual “seeing” or illumination or vision.
I have been re-reading John’s Gospel lately with fresh eyes to see the more “mystical” aspects of John’s portrayal of Jesus. Jesus’ ministry launches with him inviting curious disciples to “come and SEE” where Jesus “abides”– “seeing” and “abiding” being a loaded words in John. For John, Jesus is the “light that gives light to all men” who comes into a dark world characterized by spiritual blindness. People either believe and therefore have their eyes opened and hearts awakened to the power and presence of the Kingdom-in-Person, or they remain in darkness.
Or, consider Nathanael at the end of chapter 1 to whom Jesus says, “You will see greater things than that” and then referencing Jacob’s visionary experience in Genesis 28 adds, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man” (John 1:50). Jacob had discovered that an ordinary desert lodging place was actually the very dwelling place of the Living God — a place where angels trod and Heaven intersects with earth — for those with spiritual eyes to see and believe. “God is in this place and I was unaware of it” (Gen. 28).
With this background, we can approach the Gospel text in the lectionary for Holy Cross (Saturday, Sept. 14) with fresh eyes. Here it is:
“No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And 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. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:13-17)
Let’s just admit that most of us have yanked John 3:16 out of here, memorized it and put it on football helmets and mugs; but rarely have we considered the surrounding verses. Let’s also be honest and admit that those who have taken the time to read the rest of the passage probably walk away scratching their head and asking, “What the heck does Moses lifting up a serpent have to do with being saved by faith and going to Heaven?” The answer, I submit, has to do with the importance of “seeing” again (though we have to read behind John’s Gospel to find it).
(And if it makes you feel better, Nicodemus, who was a professional Bible expert in his day, didn’t grasp all of this stuff either the first time. In a more humbling moment, he heard Jesus mutter under his breath, “You are a respected Jewish teacher, and yet you don’t understand these things?”)
In a wild episode from Israel’s 40 year wilderness wanderings, the people were growing impatient and grumbling against God. Venomous snakes are let loose among them, and many were bitten and perishing.
Let me pause right here to acknowledge that this sounds bizarre, but all you need to do is turn on the news today to see that the serpent is still alive and well, people are being bit and perishing all around us, and we desperately need a remedy.
So, the afflicted came to Moses repentant and begging him for a cure: “Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away” (Num. 21:7). Then the Lord said to Moses,
“Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived” (Num. 21:8-9).
Notice they weren’t instructed to “believe” in the snake on the pole and live, but to “look at” or “contemplate” it and be healed.
We can read John 3:16 as simply saying, “God sent Jesus to die for your sins so you can go to Heaven,” or we can read it afresh with the eyes of a contemplative Christian. When we do, we discover that our salvation and growth in spiritual maturity involves a deeper “looking at” Christ on the Cross as the strange and ugly pathway toward true healing for our own souls.
If Heaven when we die is all we’re after, then by all means just “believe” in Christ in a somewhat cerebral and transactional way. But if we want to open up the doorway here and now into a greater experience of union with the Triune God and have our eyes opened to see the world with deeper spiritual insight, then let us also “look” – contemplate, behold, peer into the mystery of the Crucified Christ. These days we are longing for more than a ticket to heaven in the hereafter, but for the healing balm from above that can be the cure for our soul’s here-and-now ills and aches.
I close with the words of a Franciscan priest:
“[The bronze serpent] is like a homeopathic symbol. The very thing that is killing the Children of Israel is the thing that will heal them! It is presented as a vaccine that will give you just enough of the disease so you can develop a resistance to it. The cross dramatically raises up the problem of ignorant hatred for all to see, hoping to inoculate us against doing the same thing and projecting our violence onward into history.
Jesus becomes the seeming problem and the homeopathic cure for the same by dramatically exposing it for what it is, “parading it in public” (Colossians 2:15) for those who have eyes to see, and inviting us to gaze upon it with sympathetic understanding…. I believe we are invited to gaze upon the image of the crucified to soften our hearts toward suffering and to know that God’s heart has always been softened toward us, even and most especially in our suffering. This softens us toward ourselves and all others who suffer” (Richard Rohr).