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Lent Four - Looking to the cross

At this point in Lent the cross begins to loom large and cast its shadow over us. But what does that mean exactly? And how do our curious readings this week help us understand what it means to look upon the cross and be saved or healed? (Lent Four. Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21.)

You may wish to read what I wrote three years ago when I reflected on turning towards the light. Or you may wish to consider my reflections on the individual readings for Lent Four.

Maybe we can understand why these readings, especially Numbers and the gospel of John, have been linked because of the visual connection between the bronze serpent being lifted up to heal the errant people and Jesus being lifted up on the cross as a symbol of salvation. Let me reflect with you on what it might mean to: look upon the serpent that bites us in order to be healed; and why and how looking upon Jesus on the cross might save and heal us.


The reading from Numbers is a most strange story and quite ancient and mysterious in its understanding of what sin and sickness and healing and salvation mean. I think this story works on at least two levels. Firstly the people of God, the chosen ones, are yet again murmuring or complaining about their situation despite having been miraculously fed and watered in the wilderness. Their complaining can be understood as a lack of faithfulness and therefore as sinful. But the answer is not forgiveness in any direct way but rather the requirement for the people to experience consequences and to literally look at themselves and at what bit them! God didn’t ask the people, on this occasion, to say sorry or make a sacrifice. Rather they needed to experience the consequences of not being grateful and at oneness with their environment and life, of not being in faithful relationship. And the cure was to look at a bronze representation of what had bitten them.


Which takes us to a deeper level where, very much like therapy, they had to confront what ailed them. In homeopathy the healer mixes a concoction of a minute amount of the poison that ails someone as a medicine that will heal. In talking therapy the suffering one often is encouraged to look at what has hurt them in the belief that in reliving the events that wounded there will be healing. God seems to be suggesting that looking upon what has caused their suffering will bring about their healing and return to wholeness, or salvation.


Which is one way of understanding the power of looking upon Jesus on the cross. When we look upon Jesus hanging on the cross we have to see what put him there and who he is (and what that reveals about us.) And every year is an opportunity to reflect afresh and see what the cross will reveal to us this time.


Many of us have been told for a long time what put Jesus on the cross – God was rightfully angry because we were sinful and the only thing that would satisfy God was a sacrifice of a perfect human as payment. Rather than argue about the merit or otherwise of this understanding directly, we might ask what else put Jesus on the cross, what else can we see? And we might have to consider that in part at least our species wide sin of our tendency to act violently and to force our ideas on others put Jesus on the cross. The religious leaders, the Roman authorities, and the crowds wanted Jesus crucified rather than allowing an alternate view of understanding and experiencing God to flourish, especially a view that included those normally left out and regarded as unworthy.  So it was not only individual sin or failure that put Jesus upon the cross but our very flawed human nature that we all share in, or our corporate sin.


When we look at Jesus on the cross we also see the depth of his loving and compassionate self stripped bare: love without pretence or a hiding place; compassion so great that fellow sufferers can be recognised and promised a place in paradise; forgiveness so powerful that the perpetrators can be covered by the healing words “they do not know what they do”; and trust so innate that his last words can be “into your hands”.


When we look at Jesus on the cross we cannot help but see what it is about us as individuals and as humans that placed him there. When we look at Jesus on the cross we see the agonising beauty of who he was and is, even in pain and death. He went to the dark centre of our wicked and foolish ways of harming one another and abusing the image of God in others and filled that place with the light of love that cannot be destroyed.


And because of this we can see what we might be, we can see what a fully human one filled with divine love can be. We can aspire to growing into such love and compassion.  Or even to grow toward desiring such a loving way of being is to be transformed. So when we look to the cross and gaze upon Jesus we, like the ancients in the wilderness, are looking upon what has bitten us and what can heal us. Jesus on the cross is both a dismaying mirror of what we have done and an inspiring image of who we can be.

Even so, come Lord Jesus, come hold us in your loving gaze until we know ourselves and know ourselves loved into wholeness.



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