Goal is to be 'lifted up' with Jesus in every way
Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 18
2 Chronicles 36:14-16,19-23; Psalm 137:1-2,3,4-5,6; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21
Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus is so beautiful. Nicodemus will remain a disciple of Jesus from this moment even at the risk of his own status, social position and, even, his very life. A canonized saint, there is a tradition that he died a martyr for the Lord.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14). This teaching has both an allusion to the past and a prediction of the future. It is also a very important part of the theology of John’s Gospel.
One of the most intriguing instances in the salvation history of God’s chosen people occurred when, in response to an infestation of poisonous serpents, God instructs Moses to fashion a bronze serpent, which, when lifted up and gazed upon in faith, cured those bitten by the snakes (Numbers 21:4-9). Wisdom 16:6 calls the bronze serpent a symbolonsoterias (a “symbol of salvation”). Of course, the medical profession adapted this type of emblem as a symbol of the healing arts practice by those in health care.
The bronze serpent is a symbol and a foreshadowing of the ultimate symbol of salvation, the lifting up of Jesus on the Cross. There is little doubt that John intends the technical term “lifted up” (literally “to be raised up” -- hypsoun in the Greek verb) to be an allusion to Jesus’ passion of the Cross. This term appears in three places in John’s Gospel (John 3:15; John 8:28; John 12:32) and replaces the threefold prediction of his passion in the other Gospels.
Jesus lifted up on the Cross symbolizes the salvation he won for us and all the world in his life, death and resurrection. It is the symbol of merciful love and obedient fidelity of the Son.
UNITED WITH CHRIST
But the term “to be lifted up” alludes to more than just the Cross. It also refers to Jesus being lifted up in the resurrection and his ascension into Heaven. Jesus is lifted up on the Cross; he is lifted up triumphant over sin, Satan and death in the resurrection; and he is lifted up in his ascension into glory.
The term “to be lifted up” is intimately linked with the exaltation and glorification of Jesus. As Father Bruce Vawter, CM, has shown, this linkage is also found in the “Suffering Servant” passages of Isaiah where, for example, we read: “See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted” (Isaiah 52:13).
Jesus is lifted up on the Cross and in his resurrection and in his ascension into glory. Where he has gone we hope to follow. We too are told that we must unite ourselves with Jesus on the Cross by living and serving in an obedient, merciful, loving way. We must each day take up the cross of our vocation to sanctify the world through our work and our lives (cf. Luke 9:23). In doing so, in imitation of the suffering servant Jesus, we too are united to his resurrection and his glorification.
If we entrust ourselves to God completely (“believe in Him”) than we are promised “eternal life” (John 3:16). Of course, all of us will live forever. The damned in Hell as well as the glorified saints in Heaven live forever. What “eternal life” means here is to live a God-like life -- to live forever in union with Him.
VOCATION OF LOVE
This is our destiny, the purpose of our creation. To fail to become the saints we are called to be is, ultimately, the only real tragedy. As God’s beloved children -- sons and daughters in the Son -- we are called to eternally dwell with our heavenly family forever. In doing so, we will become perfected images of God.
This is how John describes it in his first letter: “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are: the reason the world does not know us is that we do not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
Like Jesus, we are called to an exalted vocation of love. If we respond to
his call we too will experience being raised up: on the cross of daily suffering for love, in the resurrection of the just, and in the glorification of heavenly union with God. Then we shall “shine forth” as a saint of God elevated and exalted by the grace of his loving mercy (cf. Wisdom 3:1-9).
Msgr. Stuart Swetland, a priest of the Diocese of Peoria, is the Most Rev. Harry J. Flynn Professor of Christian Ethics at Mount St. Mary University in Emmitsburg, Md., and director of the Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education.