Fourth Sunday of Lent (B)
(2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21)
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.
People of God, let us first of all call to mind the event referred to in our Gospel reading which originally took place when Israel was being led through the desert from slavery in Egypt towards freedom in the Promised Land.
The people spoke against God and against Moses: "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread." So the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, "We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD that He take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. Then the LORD said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live." So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived. (Numbers 21:5-9)
It must have seemed very mysterious to the People of Israel when, later on, scrutinizing the Scriptures in order to better understand and serve the Lord their God, they were faced with that bizarre incident taken from the history of their forebears journeying across the desert. It was, indeed, mysterious for them -- and unavoidably so -- because the whole episode was rich with meaning and significance for not only subsequent Israelites over more than 1000 years, but even more particularly for the whole future Christian people. In the desert, a few hundred, perhaps even a few thousand, of the children of Israel were saved by looking up at the bronze likeness of a serpent: however, interpreted for us by Jesus’ Gospel words, the memory of their experience carries with it a salutary teaching for countless millions of Christian people throughout time.
God, having sent the punishing serpents to do their work among a sinful and rebellious people, was then, subsequently, able to turn that deadly instrument of His wrath into a saving grace: look faithfully at the bronze serpent in sincere acknowledgment your sin, and you will be healed of your wounds. For us now, Jesus says, God the Father has allowed His only begotten Son, His Beloved, to be rejected by the religious authorities of His own people, before being most cruelly tortured and exhibited on the Cross, and left to suffer a slow and agonising death by the powers and principalities, the might and dominion, of imperial Rome.
Can God turn that most brutal, degrading, and horrendous event to any good purpose? Most assuredly He can, for we have not yet mentioned the pearl of great price covered but not smothered by those happenings. For He Who suffered was -- as He loved to name Himself -- the Son of Man: as the Son (of the Father) He was consumed with divine love for us; while, as Man, and as our Head, He loved, divinely, His Father with the total fullness of His sublimely perfect humanity. The complete answer to our question was made manifest when Jesus, three days later, rose from the dead; for then His rejection and exposition on the Cross of suffering and death was shown to have been but a prelude to, and preparation for, His sublime exaltation into heavenly glory.
Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son that your Son may also glorify You. (John 17:1)
Subsequently, for those who, by the Gift of the Spirit, would come to believe that what God’s infinite goodness and omnipotent power had brought about in and for Jesus could also be extended to us, despite our human sinfulness and all the wiles of Satan; yes, for all who would learn to reject themselves for humble love of Jesus and confident trust in God, the Father does, indeed, accept His beloved Son’s triumph on the Cross for our salvation and His own glory.
Just go back in your mind to the original event in the desert. God had sent venomous snakes which killed many Israelites who had sinned grievously by inveighing against the Lord and against Moses. Imagine the terror of those bitten by the serpents: their fear as the poison began inexorably to work in their bodies; why, even those who were not bitten must have been agonized to see all this horror going on around them and hear the cries of those who were in searing pain and staring death in the face. It was such people, people like us but in such a situation, who were told to look up at the bronze serpent.
Trust the command! Stop your screaming, stop your panic, stop your frantic attempts to somehow suck out the poison or cauterise the wound, stop even your hugging and your sobbing: stop all that and just get a hold of yourself, and then do what the Lord says: Look at the bronze serpent!
People of God, the message is startlingly clear for us today. If we are to look at the Crucifix and draw life from the Lord of life shown hanging there, if we are to consider Our Blessed Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection in the course of our Lenten devotion, we must look, consider, in a special way. We cannot look in a merely notional way: nodding our acceptance (for it could hardly be called ‘belief’), and remaining otherwise indifferent and disinterested. We have to look with the eyes of people who are deeply involved: people who are painfully conscious of sin and its effect in their own lives; who deeply regret their own sinful participation in and promotion of ‘the sin of the world’; people who, having not the slightest doubt of their own great need of salvation, are consequently willing to commit themselves completely -- their life, death, and destiny – to the Saviour upon Whom they are told to fix their eyes.
We have, therefore, to be honest with ourselves: we are not allowed to hide our sinful tendencies, our own weaknesses, ignorance, and selfishness, from ourselves. We have to be willing to acknowledge not only our own past sins but also the potential for wickedness that still lurks within and around us through our abiding self-love and largely-unsuspected spiritual fragility, dangers which could -- but for the saving grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the icon of God the Father’s love for us -- work in us the spiritual equivalent of the serpent’s burning, lethal, bite.
Our Lord on the Cross is, I say, the icon of the Father’s love for us; but likewise He is also the icon of God’s hatred of sin and of His determination to eradicate sin from His future Kingdom by uprooting it from the hearts of all who would be His children in Jesus. To this end, for those of us who believe, for those who, like us, look with hope and love at the Crucified One, the Father has given us His Son’s Holy Spirit -- that other Advocate and Comforter promised by Jesus -- to abide with us, to be in us, guiding and sustaining us throughout our lives. And God’s Gift of the Spirit has already begun our healing because, in our celebration of Holy Mass, the living presence of the once crucified, still self-offering, Son of the Father, is also shown -- when lifted up – as the sublime source and symbol of, the supreme food for, mankind’s repentant love for the Father. Moreover, the Spirit has placed us in another promised land, or rather, in that other garden, which is Mother Church, where the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is given us according to our measure along with the grace that enables us to use such knowledge to our greater good. That is what you heard in the second reading:
Even when we were dead in our transgressions, (God) brought us to life with Christ.
And now, living by the Spirit of Jesus Who is to be henceforth our divine Guide, we have to allow ourselves to be led by Him -- not constantly complaining as did the Israelites of old -- but willingly and gratefully guided and conducted by Him along the way of Jesus. For, ultimately, it is the Holy Spirit Who is guiding Mother Church; and it is by the action of His grace in our lives that we are enabled to appreciate her sacraments and obey her teaching, as St. Paul said:
(God) raised us up with Christ, and seated us with Him in the heavens in Christ Jesus; for by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you, it is the gift of God (that is, the work of the Spirit, Who is Himself the very Gift of God’s own Being).
‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done …’, that is what we pray, People of God, and that is what is happening in us, to us and through us, because the Father -- imperceptibly, yet always and irresistibly – is, by the Spirit, forming us in Jesus for His Kingdom, bearing us along on the flood tide of His eternal goodness, wisdom and power.
On this ‘Laetare Sunday’, therefore, let us indeed rejoice with great joy and deep gratitude that the Lord has so mercifully chosen us for His eternal purposes; and let us humbly pray that we may always swim wholeheartedly along with that tide of divine love and compassion until it brings us to our home shores:
Raised up and seated with Him in the heavens in Christ Jesus.