'The Son of Man Will be Lifted Up' - Fourth Sunday of Lent (B)

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Home > Archbishop > Homilies > 'The Son of Man Will be Lifted Up' - Fourth Sunday of Lent (B)

We are moving rapidly towards the most sacred time of the Christian year: the commemoration of the Paschal mystery of our Lord Jesus Christ. Holy week is just two weeks away. The Church’s eyes are now firmly fixed on the great work of our salvation accomplished on Calvary. The Church invites us to prepare ourselves spiritually for this sacred time.

On Good Friday, at 3 p.m. in the afternoon, the time when the Lord died, we will come together for a solemn commemoration. The liturgy is somber and restrained. A special personal moment of each of us will be coming forward to venerate the cross. Today’s Gospel prefigures the moment when we will look upon the cross on Good Friday.

Foreshadowing his passion and death, the Lord in today’s Gospel says prophetically, “The Son of Man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

These words are from the final part of Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus found in Chapter 3 of St John’s Gospel. The “lifting up” of the Son of Man alludes to an episode during the Exodus journey of the Chosen People told in the Book of Numbers (21:4-9). Finding themselves in the wilderness and without proper food or water, the Israelites have begun to grumble against the Lord and against Moses, and in consequence are punished with a plague of deadly snakes. God who sent the punishment has also, in response to the prayer of Moses, sent the remedy: the erection of a bronze figure of a snake. When the Israelites looked upon this figure it acted as a life-giving antidote to the poison.

The Gospel passage takes this incident, where the Israelites found salvation and life by directly confronting what was afflicting them, as a type of the coming “lifting up” of the Son of Man upon the cross. Those who will “look upon” the Crucified One with the eyes of faith, seeing him there as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29), will find eternal life.

St Paul commented in one place that God made the sinless one into sin. (2 Cor 5:21) Jesus, on the cross, embodied all human sin. It is a complex but profound thought. The people in the desert looked upon a snake. When we look upon Christ, we see the one who assumed all our sins that we might be reconciled with God.

Immediately following this passage about being lifted up, St John presents one of the most important (and quoted) New Testament scriptural texts: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life.”

The reference to the love of God for humanity is linked directly to the Lord being lifted up on the cross at Calvary. We cannot begin to understand the depth of the love of God for humanity until we contemplate the cross of Christ.

This can remind us of our attitude to the veneration of the cross on Good Friday as a deeply personal moment when we can show our gratitude to Christ and humbly accept the salvation won for us in such an extraordinary act of love. Nothing declares more who Jesus is than to look upon him on the cross. God loves the world this much!

In the light of this, it is worth noting that this Fourth Sunday is also known as Laetare Sunday. Laetare is the Latin word for rejoice and is taken from the entrance antiphon of the Mass today: “Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her.” In the midst of Lent, as we are approaching the commemoration of the Passion of the Lord, the Church reminds us to rejoice. Joy is the perennial disposition of the Christian. While we contemplate the terrible suffering endured by the Lord, while we know the depths of his own personal anguish, we are invited not to be burdened but to rejoice. In fact the Lord taught in the Beatitudes that when we suffer persecution we should rejoice for our reward will be great in heaven. We look beyond suffering to salvation.

The next line in the antiphon is very appropriate for us at this time. It speaks of rejoicing in what the Church provides for us. It says, “Be joyful, all who were in mourning, exult and be satisfied at her consoling breast.” The image here is the female image, the reference to a mother, and its application for us is the Church.

At this time, when there is much criticism of the bishops and the Church – and there will always be criticism of the Church – we are reminded that the Church is our mother. We call her ‘Holy Mother Church’. We drink from her breast the milk of the sacraments. The Church feeds us. The Church offers nourishment for our souls.

Today we are presented with the cross of Christ – Christ lifted up on Calvary - and invited to contemplate the depths of the love of God revealed in the crucifixion. We are encouraged to recognize that joy should be the constant characteristic of being Christian. One aspect to this joy is that we are part of the Church which ministers life-giving grace to us in the sacraments.

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Saturday, 11 March 2018