In the beginning of our Gospel reading, Jesus says to Nicodemus: “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.” Jesus is referring to two things here. One is when the Israelites in the desert complained to Moses about their food and the lack of water. And so God punished them by sending them saraph serpents, which bit the people and caused many to die (Numbers 21:4-9). After Moses interceded for the people, God told him to make a bronze serpent, and when those who were bit looked upon the bronze serpent, they were healed.
And the other is that Jesus relates His being lifted up on a cross to the lifting up of the bronze serpent in the desert. As I reflected on Jesus’ words, I was drawn to see the Scripture readings for today in the context of healing. I think we can look at our first reading from 2 Chronicles in terms of healing. After the Babylonians destroyed the Temple that Solomon had built, and after seventy years of exile, the Israelites were allowed to return by Cyrus, the king of Persia, who had defeated the Babylonians. Many Catholics in dioceses across the country, may feel that they are “in exile” after their parish has been closed or merged with another. The challenge for the Church is to bring healing to their grief, and help them see that just as the Israelites had to build another Temple, they can help build up the parish to which they are going, or the new parish they are forming.
As we continue this season of Lent, and reflect on turning back to God, can we see healing when we look at the Cross of Christ? Can we see God’s love and compassion and mercy in the Passion of Jesus? Can we see that Jesus being on the Cross tells us that He is with us when we carry our cross? There is no condemnation from the Cross. Jesus tells Nicodemus as much in our Gospel reading. There is only love. No matter how long we strayed, or how far we’ve fallen, the love of Christ can reach down from the Cross, bring us back, and lift us up, and we can be healed!
But in many instances, healing can only occur when we acknowledge the pain. When Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about the light coming into the world, but that “people preferred darkness to light,” He is speaking about good and evil, but I would also add that many people wind up preferring pain to well-being, or denial to acknowledgment. For me, as a priest, when the sex abuse scandal broke out in the Church, I could find myself getting defensive about what has happening. I wanted to defend the institution. But I realized that defending the institution had to take a back seat to at least empathy for the survivors. As a white male in the U.S, it can be discouraging for me to hear once more about “Black Lives Matter,” or “white privilege,” or “#me too.” But unless I am willing to acknowledge the pain, even though I may not have personally committed such things, then it’s hard for me to participate in the healing that needs to be done. When I was a kid (I may have to check with my siblings to see if I’m remembering this correctly and not imagining it), if I got a cut or scrape, my mother would put a band-aid on it. If after a while, the band-aid came off, and the cut was in the process of healing, my mother wouldn’t replace the band-aid, claiming that exposure to the air would help the healing process. Sometimes things have to be exposed, or brought to the light, as painful as it may be, so that healing can occur. People in 12-Step programs know this. The Church, in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, knows this.
The healing that needs to happen in ourselves, or our families, or our communities, cannot be done under our own power. As St. Paul writes in our second reading from Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God.” In order to face the pain and begin the healing, I would contend that we need grace. The thing is, God’s grace is bestowed on us all the time!
May we accept our need for healing, and acknowledge the pain we feel, and the hurts that have been done. And may we look to the Cross of Christ for His healing love.
Fr. Phil, CP