WE WANT TO SEE JESUS LIFTED HIGH
Gospel Reading: Jn 12:20-33
When I read the gospel text of the 5th Sunday in Lent (Year B), I was reminded of a popular song, written by the children’s song-writer Doug Horley, that goes:
We want to see Jesus lifted high,
A banner that flies across the land,
That all men might see the truth and know,
He is the way to heaven.
Despite the fact that the song is theologically simplistic – remember it is a children’s song – I thought the first line captures quite well the theme of the gospel of today: “We want to see Jesus lifted high”. I would like to use this line in two parts to offer the reflection for today. In the third part of the reflection, I will propose another method of praying, thus completing our series on methods of prayer for this season of Lent.
We want to see Jesus (Jn 12:21)
Jesus is in Jerusalem for the third time in the Gospel of John. His popularity has been on the rise. Jesus has been at the center of some amazing events, and even some controversial ones. He has changed water into wine (Jn 2:1-11), and fed the multitudes with five loaves and two fish (Jn 6:1-15). He has healed the cripple (Jn 5) and the blind (Jn 9). He associates with outcastes and sinners, including some Samaritans (Jn 4) and an adulterous woman (Jn 8:1-11). He has, in fact, raised a dead man back to life (Jn 11). For some, Jesus has become a dangerous man. They want to kill him, because, as they say, “If we let him go on in this way everybody will believe in him…” (Jn 11:48). For others, he still continues to raise curiosity.
Some Greeks, probably Jews from Alexandria, who had come for the festival, approach Philip (one of the Apostles with a Greek name) with this request: “Sir, we want to see Jesus” (Jn 12:21). This is an expression of the desire that lies hidden in every human heart – the desire that the Psalmists express so powerfully: “It is your face, Oh Lord, that I seek. Hide not your face from me” (Ps 27:8). “Like the dear that yearns for running streams so my soul thirsts for you, my God” (Ps 42:1). This desire for God comes from the fact that we are created in His image (Gen 1:27). The spirit within us keeps reminding us of the desire to go beyond the body. We may be aware of that desire within us, but often not take a step towards the fulfilment that desire. That is why, Pope John Paul II said to young people, in his message of 2004:
Those “Greeks” in search of the truth would not have been able to approach Christ if their desire, animated by a free and voluntary act, had not been expressed through a clear decision: “We wish to see Jesus”. To be truly free means having the strength to choose the One for whom we were created and accepting his lordship over our lives. You perceive it in the depths of your heart: all that is good on earth, all professional success, even the human love that you dream of, can never fully satisfy your deepest and most intimate desires. Only an encounter with Jesus can give full meaning to your lives: “for you made us for yourself, and our heart finds no peace until it rests in you” (Saint Augustine, The Confessions, book 1, chapter 1). Do not let yourselves be distracted from this search. Persevere in it because it is your fulfilment and your joy that is at stake.
All the Gospels (particularly that of John) have many stories of people who wanted to see Jesus. And those who took a step towards the fulfilment of that desire also got to experience God in Jesus. The wise men from the east (Mt 2:1-11) came following a star because they wanted to see the King of the Jews. Zacchaeus climbed a tree because he wanted to see who Jesus was (Lk 19:1-11). The two disciples had given up their fishing profession because they wanted to see the Messiah (Jn 1:35-42). In the gospel story of today, thanks to Philip and Andrew, the Greeks get to see Jesus. As they approach Jesus, they witness a divine revelation: “A voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will again glorify it’” (Jn 12:28); that through the death of Jesus, God’s love will be made visible and thus His name will be glorified. And Jesus himself goes on to tell them, “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all people to myself’” (Jn 12:32).
When I am lifted up (Jn 12:32)
This is not the first time that we hear this expression from the mouth of Jesus in the Gospel of John. When Jesus talks to Nicodemus (the gospel text of last Sunday), Jesus says: “as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up” (Jn 3:14). After Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery, Jesus talks to the people and says, “When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am He” (Jn 8:28). And again in today’s gospel, “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all people to myself’” (Jn 12:32). And the evangelist immediately adds, “By these words he indicated the kind of death he would die” (Jn 12:33).
In the three times that this expression is used, I see, the three stages of experience of God that is repeatedly mentioned in the Christian spiritual traditions:
1) Purgative stage – the stage of forgiveness and healing: “As Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up” (Jn 3:14). When Moses lifted up the serpent, people who gazed on it were healed (Num 21:4-9). So too gazing at Jesus lifted up in his death and resurrection we could experience death to our old selves and rising to new life.
2) Illuminative stage – the stage of clarity about our own understanding of God: “When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am He” (Jn 8:28). Gazing with the eyes of faith at Jesus lifted up in his death and resurrection we could understand with our hearts that he is not just a man. We could experience him as the Son of God.
3) Unitive stage – the stage of complete union with God: “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all people to myself’” (Jn 12:32). We have the possibility to become one with God!
Fr. Franco Pereira, S.D.B.