“The only worthwhile striving is after the highest ideals: If you aim for an easy target, your standard will inevitably decline, and no progress is ever made, except through real effort and real suffering.” - Servant of God Fra' Andrew Bertie                                                                                                                                                 "Work as if everything depends on you, pray as if everything depends on God" - Saint Ignatius of Loyola

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MEDITATION ON THE CROSS III

The third and final part of Fr Hemer's magnificent conferences.

The Son of Man Must be Lifted Up

Eager students...
In his conversation with Nicodemus Jesus says something rather strange. 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 might have eternal life. (John 3: 14-15) It's strange because Jesus is talking in a fairly straightforward way about the effect that his crucifixion will have on believers, but he uses a rather odd and obscure incident from the Old Testament to shed light on it. We would expect something like: "Just as Moses led our ancestors from slavery to freedom, so my death will set you free." So let's take a closer look. 
Jesus refers to the incident in Numbers 21:4-9 when the people accuse Moses AND GOD of bringing them into the wilderness to die. Note their resentment is towards God, they accuse him of being a murderer, of wanting bad not good for them. They are plagued by poisonous serpents who bite and kill many of them. So God instructs Moses to make a model serpent out of bronze and set it on a pole so that anyone who is bitten can look at this serpent and live. God is telling them that despite their blasphemies and doubts, he does have their good at heart. To drive the point home he takes the thing that they fear and despise the most, a snake, and makes that the source of their healing. He is saying something like: "You doubt my ability to look after you; not only can I look after you but I am so powerful and so creative that I can work my miracles through the thing that you find most horrible, the thing that you reject and loathe."
By being lifted up on the cross, Jesus too becomes something loathsome, something which the crowd, who welcomed him so enthusiastically on Palm Sunday, now hates and rejects. The religious authorities knew exactly what they were doing getting Jesus crucified. It would have been much easier for them to have him bumped off in a back street in Jerusalem and his body dumped somewhere. But that wouldn't be enough. They wanted to publicly discredit him, to take away any possibility that people might still find some good in him, and at the same time by arranging what looked like a correct legal procedure, to convince themselves that what they had done was a righteous act.
The Romans used crucifixion as a deterrent and a very powerful one. It involved the most excruciating pain, which often lasted for days, so anyone who was tempted to rebel against Rome would think again. But there was always the possibility that by executing someone publicly as a political criminal they made a martyr or a hero out of him. The Romans knew, as modern oppressive regimes know, that political executions can often rebound on them, and stir up public feeling against them rather than quell it. But not in Israel. Deuteronomy 21:23 says that anyone who is hanged upon a tree is cursed by God. By getting Jesus hung on the cross, the authorities saw to it that everyone would consider him cursed, that no one could possibly consider him a hero or a martyr. Rather they would see him as a fraud, one who had misled people and had now got his just deserts. (This of course makes it all the more remarkable that fifty three days later the Apostles are standing up in Jerusalem proclaiming him not just a good man but Lord and Christ, God's anointed one. They could not possibly have invented this wild claim about someone who had been so thoroughly discredited. The only explanation for their outrageous preaching at Pentecost is the one the New Testament gives, that Jesus was risen and they had met him.)
Jesus is saying to Nicodemus that just as people treated God in the wilderness as someone wicked, so people will do the same to him. But precisely by being lifted up – crucified – Jesus will become a source of healing and salvation to people indeed a source of eternal life. So the outrageous way in which God behaves at the crucifixion has a clear and a close precedent in the history of Israel. Surely the last place people who are daily threatened by snake bite would look for healing from it is the image of a snake. The last place on earth anyone would expect to find God present and active is in a man suffering a hideous death in a way that seemed to confirm that God's curse was upon him. But that is precisely Jesus' claim. Human being could never invent something so strange. So, as St. Paul tells us, the cross is either complete and utter folly, or the power and the wisdom of God. 

Barabbas
Many, including Origen have commented on how the scene with Barabbas bears a resemblance to the scapegoat ritual on the Day of Atonement described in Leviticus.
Then he shall take the two goats, and set them before the LORD at the door of the tent of meeting;  and Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for Azazel. And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the LORD, and offer it as a sin offering; but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the LORD to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel. (Leviticus 16:7-10)
The goat which becomes a sin offering was slaughtered, some of its blood sprinkled on the altar and some on the people. It took their sins away, it died instead of them. Jesus represents the goat for the Lord. In Matthew Pilate comes out to the people in exasperation and asks them if they want him to crucify an innocent man and declares himself innocent of Jesus’ death. They reply famously:
His blood be on us and on our children!" (Mt. 27:25) 
Sadly this has been used as an excuse for blaming the Jews as a whole for the death of the messiah, but they are unwittingly recognising that he, like the goat in Leviticus, is the sacrifice whose blood will take their sins away. It’s also precisely here that Pilate washes his hands. Leviticus tells us that when the high priest had performed the ritual he did this:
and he (Aaron) shall bathe his body in water in a holy place, and put on his garments, and come forth, and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people, and make atonement for himself and for the people. (Leviticus 16:24)
 It’s only Matthew who tells us what the people say and only Matthew who tells us that Pilate washed his hands. Remember his is in many ways the most Jewish gospel, written for people who would get these allusions.
It is of real significance that the criminal who is released in the place of Jesus is Barabbas which means ‘Son of the Father’. Commentators who say that the crowd were asking really for Jesus, but Pilate didn’t know Aramaic properly so got confused and gave them the wrong one are completely blind to the significance of what’s happening here. The mob is offered two men who in name seem identical. Mark tells us that Barabbas had committed murder during an insurrection. His father, the controlling principle of his life was the Jewish ethnic cause and violence played a big part in it. Barabbas so hated the Romans that he was prepared to kill and so morally became identical to them they are both his rival and his double. The mob are in the grip of scapegoating fervour and are loyal to no one but the mob. Their violence is exactly the same thing that Barabbas had previously been caught up in. naturally they choose one of their own. He had chosen violence as a way of bringing about peace – i.e. the end of Roman rule and they are doing the same with Jesus. Killing him brings about peace – remember the words of Caiaphas. So this is not just a detail in the passion story, it reverberates with the central issue of the Gospels – what controls people’s lives.
         The astute reader also perceives that both men are revolutionaries, and that although Barabbas is seen as a real revolutionary, but he has done nothing new or original. In fact what he does is no different to thousands who went before him and thousands who came after him right up to the present day. Revolutionaries always make the mistake of thinking that by violence they are destroying the present unjust order, whereas in fact the usually succeed only in replacing one kind of injustice with another. Because Jesus uses power in a completely new way he is far more revolutionary than any dagger-wielding Barabbas or any gun-toting Bolshevik or guerrilla. The net result of all this is that the crowds play into the hands of the chief priests who whip them up. In other words once again the poor masses do the will of the ruling class. Nothing changes! But perhaps the ruling class are correct in that they realise that this Jesus who never takes up alms is in fact far more a threat to their authority than the violent Barabbas and they make sure that it is the latter who is released. Paradoxically it is much safer to have Barabbas on the loose than Jesus.

The one who was pierced
34 But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.  35 He who saw it has borne witness -- his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth -- that you also may believe.  36 For these things took place that the scripture might be fulfilled, "Not a bone of him shall be broken."  37 And again another scripture says, "They shall look on him whom they have pierced." (19:35-37)
Jewish Sacrificial law required that the blood of the victim should not be congealed but should flow so that it can be sprinkled, so the priest had to cut open the heart of the victim, so maybe this is one more way of emphasising that Jesus dies as a sacrificial victim. John insists that he tells the truth in order that the reader may believe, so he must see a deeper significance here. He’s also telling us here that the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist have their origin here. It looks also as though Jesus own prophesy from 7:38 is being fulfilled here.
37 On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, "If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. 38 He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, `Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.'" 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
One difficulty is: where does the scripture say that? This isn’t a direct quote from anything. But Ezekiel had spoken of a new Temple from the centre of which would flow a stream of life giving water, water so pure that it would even make the Dead Sea sweet. 
Then he brought me back to the door of the Temple; and behold, water was issuing from below the threshold of the Temple toward the east (for the Temple faced east); and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the Temple, south of the altar……………… 
As I went back, I saw upon the bank of the river very many trees on the one side and on the other. And he said to me, "This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the stagnant waters of the sea, the water will become fresh.  And wherever the river goes every living creature which swarms will live, and there will be very many fish; for this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes. (Ez. 47:1, 7-9) 
I don’t suppose anyone took this literally, but we know that by the time of Jesus there were still plenty of Jews, like the Essenes and John the Baptist who were deeply disillusioned that the Temple they were stuck with in no way corresponded to Ezekiel’s hopes. And we see in ch. 2 of John how Jesus says that he replaces the Temple, and at the crucifixion out of his side – his heart - flow blood and water. In other words in this passage Jesus seems to be saying that through his death, which will enable the coming of the Holy Spirit, the great vision of Ezekiel will come true, and the exile will at last be truly over  and the full restoration of Israel will become a real possibility. 
Vidi aquam egredientem de templo, a latere dextro, alleluia  Et omnes, ad quos pervenit aqua vista  salvi facti sunt et dicent, alleluja.
I saw water flowing from the temple, on the right side, alleluia: And all to whom that water came have been saved, and they will say, alleluia.
         To a first century Jew familiar with the topography of Jerusalem this scene may well have held yet another meaning. Josephus in The Jewish War tells us that  there were 256,500 lambs sacrificed at the Passover. Now that figure sounds exaggerated, how would they achieve all that in one day? But we are talking of at least tens of thousands of animals. Where does all the blood go from these sacrifices? According to an ancient Jewish tradition this blood was directed into a drain that flowed from the altar of sacrifice and merged with a spring of water that flowed from the side of Temple Mount. It flowed into the Kedron brook. So at Passover time, if you approached the Temple from the Kedron valley to enter by the golden gate you would have seen a stream of blood and water flowing from the side of the Temple. It’s John once again telling us that Jesus is the true Temple, the true dwelling place of God on Earth.
         If we go back to Zechariah the original is very slightly different to the way John quotes it.
And I will pour out upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace, and of prayers: and they shall look upon me, whom they have pierced: and they shall mourn for him as one mourneth for an only son, and they shall grieve over him, as the manner is to grieve for the death of the firstborn. (Zechariah 12:10)
I’ve used the DRA translation but this is exactly what you find in the MT, the LXX and the Vulgate.

(the quotations given in Hebrew and Greek are omitted as they do not show correctly in HTML - Ed)

et effundam super domum David et super habitatores Hierusalem spiritum gratiae et precum et aspicient ad me quem confixerunt et plangent eum planctu quasi super unigenitum et dolebunt super eum ut doleri solet in morte primogeniti

There seems to be an understanding that the one who is pierced has some identity with God himself. I wonder if this spirit of grace and prayer is what happened at Pentecost. It does seem to tie in once again with Jesus’ saying: 
When I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.
Remember how a verse from the OT when quoted by the gospel writers always intends to invoke the whole context. A little later Zechariah says:
On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness. (Zechariah 13:1)
The blood and water flowing from Christ’s side are exact symbols of that sacramental fountain which continues to cleanse and sanctify people.

O. L. of Sorrows
The liturgy of Good Friday helps us look at the Cross head on and try to understand some of its meaning, taste its power, enter into its mystery. No one spoke more eloquently of the cross than St. Paul, but hundreds of Christian writers since have reflected on it; the early fathers, Augustine, Anselm, Thomas, Alfonsus of Ligouri, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Merton, right down to RenĂ© Girard and beyond. Contemplating the Cross is a part of our life’s work, it’s part of what makes sense of our lives. So we can reflect with all those great authors.
Or……..we can take another route, a route of the heart rather than the head and stand with Mary and look at the cross through her eyes, unite our heart with hers, because she loves Jesus. And we can’t stand with her without loving Jesus. With Mary we take a sideways on look at the crucified Christ from the point of view of the one human being who felt its effects most acutely, most terribly.
It is possible to treat the Cross of Christ as a theological problem to be solved. To which Mary would say: “that’s my son they’re doing that to.”
In St Alphonsus’ Stations of the Cross, the thirteenth station, Jesus is taken down from the cross says this:
Consider that, our Lord having expired, two of His disciples, Joseph and Nicodemus, took Him down from the cross, and placed Him in the arms of His afflicted Mother, who received Him with unutterable tenderness, and pressed Him to her bosom. 
If there isn’t something of that tenderness of Our Lady in our approach to the faith, then there is something missing. The devotions around OL of Sorrows make sure that in our contemplating the cross we keep our focus, because we look at the crucified Jesus through the eyes of someone who loved him deeply.
As involved Christians we try to open ourselves to all the intellectual brilliance of the finest minds in the Church as we try to know Christ.
That’s already a lot, but it’s not enough. We also align ourselves with the loving heart of Mary. We make ourselves open to having our own souls pierced, like Mary we make ourselves totally vulnerable to God
Let’s give the last word to St. Alphonsus. 
O Mother of Sorrow, for the love of this Son, accept me for thy servant and pray to Him for me. And Thou, my Redeemer, since Thou hast died for me, permit me to love Thee.