If I be Lifted Up

We return from the various ‘journeys’ of the March Break only to enter into one of the profoundest spiritual journeys of our humanity. Such is Holy Week. We immerse ourselves in the Passion of Christ in all of its fullness and intensity, in all of the ups and downs of the human condition. “And I, if I be lifted up,” Jesus says, “will draw all unto me” (Jn 12.32) All refers to all people or all things; the variants in the ancient Greek manuscripts allow for either meaning. There is something universal and cosmic in this text which complements an earlier text in which Jesus recalls one of the crucial events of the Exodus story of the ancient Hebrews. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (Jn. 3.14). It is impossible to think about Holy Week apart from the journey of the Exodus which in its universal aspects belongs to the idea of human redemption and divine revelation.
If that were not enough to consider, there is also the Islamic festival of Ramadan which overlaps with much of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter this year. It celebrates the revelation of the Qur’an to Mohammed and ends around April 9 with the Feast of Eid al-Fitr, the breaking of the fast. It, too, echoes the Exodus story in terms of the making known of God’s Word and Will in the Law.
Something is made known to us about ourselves and God in the pageant of the Passion. Passion here refers to what Christ wills to suffer for us in what belongs to the truth of our humanity. He wills to bear our sins and in so doing makes the nature of sin known to us. We go into the Passion to learn the great lessons of sin and love; those “two vast, spacious things” as the poet George Herbert says. There can be no lifting up without a going down but in both those movements what we contemplate is nothing less than God in us even in our twisted brokenness. In this sense, we are redeemed from the obsessive passions that imprison us in our own emptiness. It is not simply about ourselves.
Sin and love are made known explicitly in the events of the Passion and in ways that convict and move our hearts. As such we are lifted up out of the twisted forms of our loves in disarray. Homo incurvatus in se, humanity curved in or turned in upon itself is a helpful definition of sin derived from Augustine. We are too much with ourselves in the wrong ways and/or for the wrong ends that lead to the forms of suffering. It is not that our human passions are wrong but disordered.
The full meaning of sin and love are made visible in the crucified Christ. What we contemplate in his Passion are the different and various forms of our twisted selves, our incomplete and partial loves that result in one way or another in our being less than who we are in God. “We are because God is,” as the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, puts it, “and we are what we are because God is what God is.” Holy Week is the pageant of the redemption of who and what we are in God.
The reference to the serpent in the wilderness looks back to the story of the Fall in Genesis and its long legacy in the forms of the twisted nature of our fallen humanity. Jesus recalls a famous passage from The Book of Numbers when the people of Israel complained against God and his provisions for them in the wilderness. God seeks our good and we complain! In so doing we put ourselves at the center of the universe as if God were subject to our desires. Such is the twisted nature of our passions in disarray. What is the corrective to this twisted understanding? “Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people.” Somehow we have to learn the nature of sin, in this case through the symbolism of serpents; not the creeping serpent of human reason on the ground but the serpent lifted up before our eyes.
In the Genesis story of the Fall, the serpent is an image of human reason turned against the truth that it knows. “Did God say?”, the serpent asks, when in truth we know what God said (Gen. 3. 1). We confront the forms of our self-contradiction; paradoxically, it is also the awakening of ourselves to self-consciousness but only through separation and thus the beginning of the long pageant of human suffering.
The deeper point of Holy Week is that we are not the victims of external forces or circumstances. Christ is the sacrificial victim who reveals the nature of human sin to us. In Numbers, “the people come to Moses” in repentance, confessing that “we have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord” (Num. 21. 7). They ask for Moses to pray to the Lord to take away the serpents. God instructs Moses to “make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live” (Num. 21. 8). In other words, the sin of their denial of God is made visible to them; they “look at the bronze serpent and live” (Num. 21.9). The logic is profound. Our sins are made visible to us as sin, as a kind of twisting and negation of what we truly are because of what God is. The serpent is lifted up in the wilderness.
Is this not what Jesus seeks for us in recalling this passage from Numbers and identifying himself with the logic of the story? He is lifted up so that we may behold in him those “two vast, spacious things: sin and love.” In so doing we are lifted up out of the experience of our going down into the false and twisted forms of ourselves. We are drawn to who we are in Christ, drawn out of ourselves to God and to one another.
The Palm Sunday’s joyous cries of “Hosanna” quickly turn to the ugly shouts of “Crucify, Crucify” yet Holy Week will bring us to the greater “Alleluias” of our Easter joy in Christ’s Resurrection. But only through his being lifted up on the Cross.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy

2023 Scholarship
King’s-Edgehill School is located in Mi'kma'ki, the unceded ancestral territory of the Mi’kmaq People.