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14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
When reading today´s texts, we have the impression that they are a collection of paradoxes. We already know the contrasts that John uses, but this Sunday’s Gospel seems to go beyond any expectation. It is true that the history of salvation, such as the people of Israel understood it, was a basic paradox: the smallest of the peoples living in the Middle East, struggling to survive in conditions of slavery under Egyptian dominion, were elected by Yahweh, the only saving God, to be his chosen people, a son of adoption called to live in sanctity and justice and to become an example for all nations. In that context, the Messiah they expected in Jesus’ time would be the one destined to bring justice to nations and establish a reign of peace exceeding the Pax Romana imposed by Augustus.
Nicodemus’ visit to Jesus allows John to bring together the main themes of his Gospel. What we read today is only the last fragment of a long passage in which Jesus tries to convey a message to reassure the timid (or perhaps, more precisely, “cautious”) Pharisee who comes to him in the middle of the night for some explanation about the very nature of this preacher, whom he considers “a teacher… come from God” (3:2), and of the works he performs.The example of the bronze serpent, alluding to Numbers 21:4-9, introduces one of the “contrasting pairs” used by John. The sinful lack of patience of the people provokes, “down on the ground,” the biting of serpents. Only by “lifting” their eyes to the bronze serpent set “up on high” will they find their cure and salvation. That sign will allow John to speak about us, humans living down on the earth and suffering because of our sins, and about the salvation brought by Jesus, who comes from the Father, “up on high.” Curiously, the process will come to its climax when Jesus will be “lifted” on the cross, a sign of damnation, be “raised” again from the dead… (3:14-15; 2:19-22; 8:28; 12:32-34) allowing us to share in his salvation.
From this first image onward, all is a permanent paradox. The world, which hates Jesus and his followers (7:7; 15:18-19) is loved by God to such an extent that he sent Jesus, his only Son, so that the world “may have eternal life” (3:15). Eternal life, on the other hand, is not what the world expects, immortality or some other philosophical idea, but the result of Jesus’ own glory, and “this is eternal life, that they [the disciples] should know you, the only true God, and the One whom you sent, Jesus Christ” (17:1-3). Those who have sight and are supposed to “see” in depth God’s presence, are in fact blind because they do not accept Jesus, “the light of the world” (1:3-5; 3:19-21; 9:39-41) and therefore condemn themselves to live in darkness. Believing in Jesus means becoming children of God, but this rebirth is not caused “by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God” (1:12-13). In fact, through faith, they are “born [again] from above” (3:3-7). As you may see, we could go on and on, for the text offers a good number of connections, each of which leads us to new dimensions of Jesus’ personality and mission.
But there are still two details that deserve our attention. The text from Ephesians, insisting on God’s generosity as the origin and source of our salvation, uses twice the same phrase, “by grace you have been saved” (2:5, 8). This recalls the same idea expressed in John’s hymn, that even if Moses’ Law was a grace by itself, our salvation is the new and final “grace and truth” and proceeds from Jesus’ fullness (1:16-17). As for the long passage from 2 Chronicles, the story of Judah’s punishment and their captivity in Babylon ends with the promise of reconstructing the Temple of Jerusalem and re-establishing worship; and it is Cyrus, a foreign, heathen king, who, (oh, paradox!) encourages that task.
There are so many themes and dimensions involved in today’s liturgy that I propose something quite simple and complex at the same time. Choose one of the images used to describe Jesus’ manifold reality, (truth, light, life, way, bread of life, shepherd, vine), even if it is not in today’s text. Meditating upon any one of them will help you discover the dimensions in which you feel more personally involved and “connected” with Jesus. You will surely find a good number of ways to renew your relationship with him and follow him as if you were to “be born again.”
Pray for those who live in the darkness of doubt or uncertainty, for those who cannot find their way in life: that Jesus, the light of the world, may enlighten them and lead them to himself who is the truth. Pray for Christians who at present live in the darkness of suffering, persecution or death threats because of their faith: that Jesus, the life of the world, may comfort and help them in their distress
We Catholics “examine our consciences” as the first step in the sacrament of reconciliation. We bring to our minds our faults and sins to be aware of the things we should present before God to receive his pardon. That means “being born again,” not in the sense of those who go through a process of a “radical” conversion to the Gospel, but something humbler and simpler, recognizing the need to renew our status as lukewarm sinners. We are approaching Easter. Couldn’t we try to do something as easy as bringing up our old “corpses,” the dead load of routine in our Christian life, and prepare ourselves for the renewal of our liturgical resurrection?
Reflections written by Rev. Fr. Mariano Perrón
In the Gospel readings of the last several Sundays, led by Mark at first, and then by John, we have followed Jesus through the first months of his public life. We have witnessed the powerful moment of his baptism, and then his temptation in the desert. We have seen him choosing his disciples and changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana. And we saw him expel the money changers from the Temple.
Many were those who believed in him because of his first miracles. A few unhesitantly believed with deep faith. Others refused to believe and violently rejected him. But the great majority had a middle-of-the-road, ambiguous faith: a mixture of natural religiosity and natural attraction towards the extraordinary or the miraculous; a faith without too much commitment.
One of those ambiguous believers was Nicodemus. I really like Nicodemus, because he is so much one of us. He believes but does not have the courage to assume all the consequences of his faith totally; nevertheless Jesus takes him seriously. Being a doctor in Israel he knows the Scriptures. He can see that God is with Jesus, but does not go as far as to recognize that God is in Jesus. He comes to him in order to know more, but he comes during the night. He is a seeker, a seeker in the darkness. His faith will grow but he will always remain somewhat ambiguous. He feels close to Jesus but he also stays away from him. He will be there at the time of Jesus’ burial, but not too close.
Today’s Gospel reading is taken from the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus as reported in the first chapters of John’s Gospel. Jesus takes Nicodemus where he is on his journey and leads him further. Exactly what He does with us when we come to Him in our own darkness. Nicodemus had come to look for light in darkness; they don’t go together, and Jesus challenged him to choose between light and darkness.
The real light is the one of Transfiguration: it implies death and it requires the doing of truth. Salvation is not for those of have vague beliefs but for those who act in truth or, to translate the Greek literally, those who “do the truth”.
The newness of Jesus’ message appears here in all its light. The message is that God is not an eternally immobile first principle. God has a future and His future is in men’s hands. Salvation is not at the end of history, but is part op it. The cross is planted at the heart of human history, at the heart of a world devoured by strife and misery. The world of the mighty where the lowly are trampled upon was the world that Jesus knew, the world that put him to death, the world that he came to redeem.
It was by assuming human misery that Jesus made it possible for us to be delivered from it. Not through miracles — the signs that the Pharisees demanded as a proof of his messiahship — but through a transfiguration of men’s eyes and hearts. Today the Cross of Christ is planted at the heart of so many parts of the world where there is so much pain and groaning. The future of those countries and of their people — which is our future and God’s future — depends on us. It depends on whether our eyes are transformed enough to allow us to see the sign of the cross planted in the midst of that suffering and bleeding humankind.