No further remedy...

Published on 11 Mar 2021

The Son of Man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him[1].   In the middle of Lent, on Laetare Sunday, we look forward with joyful confidence to what awaits us in Holy Week and at Easter.  On the horizon we see Jesus lifted up.  The Son of Man is raised up at the resurrection.  Before that, however, he is lifted up on the cross.  High above and ahead of us we gaze at our saviour.  He is held up, first, in contempt, during his public execution, then in glory, when he rises from the dead.   Christ, lifted up, inspires us when we look at him with faith and trust.  He surveys us from his high place.  Yet his humility as well as his grandeur is apparent to us.   The cross, which we have learned to love, remains a gibbet.  To be lifted up on the cross is to be put down. For us to contemplate the cross is to plumb the depths.    The crucifixion does not merely mark time until the resurrection. Lent leads us soberly towards the passion and death of the saviour.  We experience a certain joy as we peer ahead to where he is lifted up.  The good that is achieved by his sufferings delights us, even as we weep for the pain he endures. We smile through our tears as we glimpse our costly salvation. There is no other remedy.  Straining forward to the resurrection of Jesus, we give thanks for what it promises.

So Moses fashioned a bronze serpent, which he put on a standard, and, if anyone was bitten by a serpent, he looked at the serpent a lived [2].  Healing for Israel, making its way through the desert, came when those who were in danger of death contemplated a sculpted image of what had inflicted poisonous bites.  The Son of Man on the cross is a vision to comfort suffering humanity and also to reflect its most difficult experiences.  The spectacle of the incarnate One being put to death mirrors the fallen state of all who have been ‘deceived by the serpent.’  The sinless Christ is punished for sin. The tempter again becomes a paradoxical emblem of healing.  Sin is crucified and does not rise again.  What is fallen is contrasted with what has been lifted up.  It is not that, homoeopathically, a little poison fortifies us against greater dangers.  The cross is not a lesser evil.  Rather, the worst thing is held up to us to show that it has been defeated. The victory belongs to the victim.  In the desert, it was essential to look at the bronze serpent.  This was not a refined, aesthetic contemplation.  Mortally wounded, those who might die at any moment looked piteously upon their only hope of life.  Our crosses and crucifixes remind us of Jesus’ love for us.  Their beauty, however, could distract us from the horror of the execution.  Gazing at the cross, we are not visitors to a museum or gallery savouring a lovely work of art. We are looking at our only chance of rescue.  Sin and death would defeat us if there were not, ahead of us, One who has been lifted up.

Our contemplation of the cross and passion, from a distance, is no detached, unfeeling inspection.   We are deeply involved in what is going on.  Half way through Lent we are in the midst of a long, thorough meditation on the passion of our saviour.  We prayerfully consider the death of our redeemer because of our wrongs. He is fighting for our life.  His death coils round sin and chokes it.  We look at the serpent and live.  Confronted by death, we reach up towards new life.   Jesus, dying on the cross beckons us forward to the new life of the paschal mystery.   The Lord is lifted up to die and to live again: he saves us and fills us with life.  The distance between us and the cross is not the gap between a hero and cowards.  Our Lenten momentum carries us forward. We are walking towards the cross not running away from it.  We approach it with faith. We draw near to it, joyfully grateful for what the Lord’s great suffering has achieved for us.  The lifting up of our saviour lifts us up also.  It is the remedy administered once and for all.

We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to live the good life as from the beginning he had meant us to live it [3].   Created in the Son, our life is patterned by his.   The cross looms for us.  As disciples of Jesus we have to follow him to Calvary and not run away. Then to all, he said, ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me [4].   The meaning of the suffering of Jesus leeches into our troubles.  We find direction and purpose in his being lifted up in a way which is at once terrible and victorious.  The cross and the resurrection are engraved on us. God has long had knowledge of how we would live.   Difficulties and pain are kneaded into the stuff out of which the divine sculptor makes us.  ‘Illuminate our hearts, we pray, with the splendour of your grace.’[5]  His plan and providence take account of our troubles.  Sometimes, with God’s help, good is drawn out of evil. The remedy shocks us but we accept it, understanding that we need it.

The freedom of each one is respected. However, our part in the history of salvation is allotted to us, not chosen.  Thus speaks Cyrus, king of Persia, ‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth; he has ordered me to build him a Temple in Jerusalem [6].  The great king can do what he likes, but he is an instrument of providence nevertheless.  He rebuilds the temple in Jerusalem.  Jesus speaks of the temple, its destruction and rebuilding as emblems of his death and resurrection. It has taken forty-six years to build this sanctuary: are you going to raise it up again in three days? But he was speaking of the sanctuary that was his body, and when Jesus rose from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this [7].  We make our contribution to the lifting up of Christ.  Like Cyrus, we might find ourselves rebuilding and renewing.  The torturing and killing of the Son of Man are achieved by those of whom their victim said: Father, forgive them they do not know what they are doing [8].   Our free decisions, some of them very foolish, are woven into the tapestry.  The creator takes responsibility for what happens.  The sinless One not only suffers for the sins of everyone else but remains the author of all life.

The lifting up of Christ includes our sharing of our faith in him with others.  So that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him [9].  We play our part in holding up the Lord so that others can see and believe in him.  Those who are enabled to live in the Spirit of what they see when the Son is lifted up are gathered eternally into the Father’s house.  God raised us up with Christ and gave us a place with him in heaven [10].  Our integrity, our fidelity and our love prompt us to witness to the One who is lifted up.  It is through grace that you have been saved [11].  His crucifixion and his resurrection impact on our life so that those we meet, meet not only us but him, and him raised up.  As God’s work of art we give glory to our maker.  He has made us in his own likeness.  It is one of our tasks to show him to others.  Those who live by the truth come out into the light, so that it may be plainly seen that what they do they do in God [12].  We are, to our astonishment,  an image of the passion of Jesus and of his coming out of the tomb in glory. He sends us out on mission.  O how could we sing the song of the Lord on alien soil [13].  The one who is lifted up looks far beyond the boundaries and limits which usually constrain people.  He unites people, makes his home among them all and lifts them up.   Cyrus encouraged the faithful to go up [14] to the restored temple.  Jesus identifies himself with this secular wisdom and goes well beyond it.  His merciful love reaches out to those who pull temples down and those who build them up. Making himself the temple, he welcomes home the exiles and embraces those who like himself have been excluded and rejected.  His being lifted-up does not place him above suffering.   High up on the cross he continues to suffer.  Risen from the dead, he carries the marks of his wounds.    The people wandering in the desert, to whom Moses showed the bronze serpent, were able to receive healing from God.  To contemplate an image of what had wounded them saved them from death, the consequence of their sin.  There was no further remedy [15]. To look with the eyes of faith on Christ lifted up on the cross is to be saved by him from sin and death. For God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved [16].

Homily by Father Peter Gallagher SJ

[1]              John 3.1

[2]              Numbers 21.9

[3]              Ephesians 2.10

[4]              Luke 9.23, and see also Matthew 16.24

[5]              The Roman Missal, Fourth Sunday of Lent, Prayer after Communion

[6]              2 Chronicles 36.23

[7]              John 2.20-22

[8]              Luke 23.34

[9]              John 3.1

[10]            Ephesians 2.6

[11]            Ephesians 2.5

[12]            John 3.21

[13]            Psalm (137) 136.4

[14]            2 Chronicles 36.23

[15]            2 Chronicles 36.16

[16]            John 3.16