And 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.”
In each of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) Jesus tells his disciples three times about his coming passion and death in Jerusalem. Three times in the Gospel of John, Jesus speaks of being lifted up. We hear the first of these prophesies in today’s gospel.
In the eighth chapter, verse 28, we find: “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he….And in John 12:32: …when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.’
These sayings clearly refer to the healing work of Moses when he lifted up the serpent in the desert to heal the people who had been bitten by fiery, or seraph, serpents.But there’s an important back story: God had beset the Hebrews with these nasty creatures because they complained about their predicament in the desert. Seeing no food or water, surrounded by hostile enemies, they could not or would not rely on God’s providential care -- despite the series of miracles that had brought them into this perilous place. Their constant grumbling had worn out his patience and he let them suffer one of the natural hazards of the wilderness until they pled for mercy.
So we understand Jesus’ being lifted up as a promise of healing, forgiveness and deliverance.Hearing this phrase, Catholics must be immediately reminded of the crucifix. We prefer it to a simple cross and see it front and center of every Catholic Church. When we lift up our eyes we see the Crucified Lord.
Today, especially, surrounded and assailed as we are in a visual culture by images of every sort we turn to the crucifix for relief. Our contemporaries, in a search for ever greater sensations and ever more powerful marketing techniques, develop violent images to sell their products. They use screens and monitors in every office, every hospital room, every visiting room, every bedroom and living room to distract us. Even their ubiquitous highway billboards are electrified to distract us from driving safely. Need I mention the scalding effects of pornography on our most intimate relationships?
We'd be safer under a blazing sun with fiery serpents underfoot than we are under this barrage of blasphemous images.
Jesus invites us to gaze upon his crucified body; this image is more powerful than any other and all others put together. We must lift up our eyes to be healed of the burning wounds of these fiery serpents. We must fix our gaze upon him often, daily, to survive in this wilderness of the 21st century.