THE GOSPEL READING speaks of an encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. It was on the purpose of the coming of Jesus into the world, namely not to condemn the world but to save it. A beautiful imagery used by Jesus Christ here is that of being raised up and the reward of eternal as a response of faith. Elsewhere in 12:32 using the same verb to lift, Jesus says that he will draw all men to himself. This later passage makes it clear that the context is the death of Jesus. Hence being lifted up has to do with his crucifixion. On the cross Jesus is lifted or exalted. Being exalted means also glorification. Hence the death of Jesus is at the same time his glorification as a king understood by the ancients as a bringer of blessing. The tension however remains between the assent of faith in 3:14 and the universal salvation in 12:32. This is resolved in the simple fact that though salvation is meant for all, but only those who believe will be saved. Faith in the crucified brings life upon us.

This passage has a wilderness background in Numbers 21:4-9 where the people were punished by God sending poisonous snakes to bite them. At Moses´ intercession God asked him to make an image of the serpent and set it on a standard. The reason is that whoever bitten by the snake that looks at the image will be saved. This theme is also taken up in Wisdom 16:5-7 where it is clearly interpreted as a warning to as well as a symbol of deliverance for the people. The Wisdom writer continued by saying that the people were saved not by the bronze serpent but by the Saviour himself. Moving beyond the image to the reality behind it, this becomes a wonderful argument in support of the veneration of images by devout Christians. Hence just as looking at the bronze serpent brings healing so also looking at the cross of Jesus brings healing and salvation.

John´s reception of this Old Testament imagery is salvific. It presents the saving mission of Jesus Christ within the context of death. Remember earlier they had discussed the issue of being born again. In fact, the expression used is being born from above explained later by Jesus as being born of water and spirit, an imagery of baptism. The idea of being born again stems from Nicodemus´ question on the possibility of one entering the mother´s womb again. We are called to be born of the spirit which is a way of believing in Jesus Christ the giver of salvation. Hence this journey entails participating in the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. The cross is at the same time the glorification of Jesus for whoever dies with him rises with him.

Another place where the exaltation of Jesus Christ takes place within the context of death is the beautiful doxa hymn of Philippians 2:6-11. Jesus Christ is exalted and on him is conferred the greatest of all names namely Kurios – Lord; a New Testament equivalence of the Hebrew Adonai, a divine title predicated only of God. This hymn presents Jesus as a model for all Christians which has the consequence that if we like Jesus empty ourselves of certain things and humble ourselves, that God will raise us and glorify us – a recommended virtue in the Christian community of Matthew 23:12. Confessing that Jesus is Lord is an article of faith. The Creed says; “I believe in Jesus Christ,  … who was … born of the Virgin Mary, … was crucified, died and was buried, … the third day he rose again from the dead, ascended into heaven and seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from there he shall come to judge the living and the dead…” Thus, the Creed fuses together the historical Jesus, the exalted Jesus and the Parousia Jesus into a synthesis of Jesus of faith. As a model, we look upon him who is crucified in faith that we might have life and this life consists in confessing him as the Lord and imitating his way of self-emptying. 

It is already the fourth Sunday of Lent, the Laetare Sunday. We are presented with the message of looking up unto the cross of Jesus. Jesus says, whoever believes will have life. This looking up is not a mere glance. It is an act of faith. It is not something magical. It has to do with opening and emptying oneself and merging self with Jesus. In this way we participate in the life of Jesus; in a kind of I – He relationship. It is no longer I but Christ who lives in me. In my suffering, it is Christ who suffers. In my joy it is Christ who rejoices. In the cross of Jesus, I am totally absorbed. In his exaltation I too am exalted. No matter what we are passing through at this moment, we are called upon to look unto Jesus as the Israelites looked unto the bronze serpent. The image of the suffering Messiah consoles us that we are not alone in our suffering.

Faith in the crucified brings about healing. At the moments of turbulence, a steady gaze on the cross of Jesus Christ offers us stability. It prevents us from possible rash reactions. It reminds us that we are not alone in our suffering. It is an offer for us to empty ourselves at the moment of every dream, desire, wish, anxiety and fear and allow the kenotic Christ to fill us. This steady gaze upon the cross of Christ is to believe in him in all things especially as the one who suffers with us and who can deliver us from our present sorrow. No matter what you are passing through, be it disappointment, failure, accusations or even personal guilt, just do the needful and hand everything over to God. Try to merge the past, the present and the future into a salvific now. Our invitation to rejoice today is not necessarily because all is well but because we are journeying to the morning of Easter. It is because the Almighty is by our side. He hangs on the cross dying and at the same time promising us salvation. In the cross is salvation. In our perseverance is joy. Happy Laetare Sunday.

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