Friday, March 20, 2009

The Fourth of Lent, Year B
(A plainer text version follows this post.)

Good Catholic family.
Mother born in the West of Ireland about 1860,
good Catholic stock.
Father a convert, complete and devoted;
family a couple centuries in the North Carolina mountains
and the Virginia Tidewater bayshores.

Raised their kids well, too. A dozen of them – 1890 to 1910.
Good, solid, faithful Catholics from South Philadelphia.

One of those kids came to me one day with an odd statement.
And it seemed especially odd to me,
because I knew about his very Catholic parents and brothers and sisters –
had met most of them, even.
Nice people. Very nice.

I’d been ordained fifteen years then –
long enough to know many of the kinds of things people bring up
when they talk to a priest.
And long enough to know how sorely some people’s concerns weighed on me
when I couldn’t seem to find an answer for them.

And, of course, the “kid” from that good family had been growing up for a half-dozen decades.
Still very good Catholic.
By then, of course, he had his own family, most of them grown up.

I knew all that very well. That’s why the statement shocked me.

That man – that former “kid” – was my father.

And my father, 75,
comes to me, 15 years a priest,
and says, “I’m starting to worry about the hereafter.”

“Oh, Lord, help me,” I thought. “Now what?”

“Yeah,” Dad says,
“I come into a room and I think, ‘Now what am I here after?’”

If it weren’t for my thumping heart I might have enjoyed the pun. Dad sure did.

Puns don’t have a good reputation in our culture. I had a prof in college who hated them. I can still remember falling all over my words trying to rephrase something so it wouldn’t come out as a pun – or even close to one.

The thing is, though… there are a lot of puns in the Bible.
Serious ones, not jokes…
well, maybe one or two jokes.
But even those jokes have a very serious purpose.

There are puns which we know the Biblical authors
– and the Bible’s heavenly Author –
puns that they certainly would have known
and which they used to make an important point.

There are other puns that you and I might recognize
– and even think how nice it is like that –
but which were definitely not intended by the Biblical authors.

A great one works with our English words
“sun” – the light in the sky –
and “son” – the male child.

So often when we describe Christ we speak of the “Son of Man,”
his own way of referring to himself.

Or we say, “the rising Sun from on high,”
“the Sun of Justice” shining on “those in darkness and the shadow of death”
– a beautiful image from the Christmas readings.
But no, those puns were not intended.
Saint Luke, even Saint Luke, great and artistic writer that he was –
even Saint Luke didn’t know English.

“Rose” is another one like that.
“Rose” vestments serve as a sign today that Easter is really coming.
And the word “rose”…
well, you know.
But it’s only an accident of English
that it names the flower (and its color, of course)
but it’s also a part of the verb “to rise.”
Nice thought. And we can certainly enjoy it.
But it’s just an accident.

But… but,
there is another “pun” in the Scriptures we read today –
and this pun is definitely intended.
In fact, it is absolutely central to our whole Christian understanding
of the universe and our place in it – and the God who made that place for us.

It is a pun which, of course, does not depend on the English language.
It is reflected in ancient languages from the time of Jesus,
but the double meaning goes much further back –
back to the very actions and thoughts it describes.

It is a very good and very powerful word,
a place where the New Testament is calling upon all the great reverence for words
which filled the ancient people of Israel.

Jesus says, describing himself,
"The Son of Man must be lifted up,
so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life."
“The Son of Man must be lifted up” –
what’s that mean? When was Jesus “lifted up”?
What’s he talking about here?

That’s a good question. The answer is downright magnificent!

The day is coming
– Jesus knows it; his disciples haven’t quite caught on yet –
when his hands and wrists will be nailed to a cross-beam,
and with his weight hanging all from those nails,
the soldiers of Rome will haul him up
probably without the least pity, without the least gentleness,
will drop that cross-beam down into its place on the upright.

Nailed to the arms of Jesus,
bearing all his weight on the nails in the cross,
the beam will thud into place,
and he will hang between heaven and earth in the agony of crucifixion –
no longer on earth,
not yet in the relief of heaven.

His mother will gaze up at him
and his Father down.
And I would be powerless to describe or even comprehend
what would go on in their hearts, in their spirits.

“The Son of Man… is lifted up from the earth.”
And we gaze, too, I hope – in the wonderment of faith.
And moved by that faith – moved into hope and into love –
we recognize there on the cross
our salvation.

Mary, his mother, is a good model for us – in many ways.
Back at the beginning, I doubt she knew much more than the disciples,
the Twelve whom Jesus had chosen.
“Lifted up from the earth”? What? What is my Son saying?

Now she sees;
now she knows.
This is “lifted up from the earth.”

All her life
she has lived
not on the little she knew,
but on the very much
that she believed.
Does this moment bring her clarity? Is this the explanation? …

Mary is not his only parent there gazing at her Son high on that Palestinian hill –
and lifted up even higher than the hill, lifted up on the Cross.
“Pondering all these things in her heart,” as she so often did,
did she sense the presence of Jesus’ other Parent?
Did she know his Father was gazing there, too?

I suspect so.
I know this:
all her life Mary was open to what the Father of her Son would do.
Understand it? Likely not. Accept it? Certainly so.

So she must have left her heart open. She must have been willing to accept yet more
from this God
whom her people – his People – had known since Abraham and Sarah,
since the days of Moses and the serpent in the desert:
a God of inscrutable ways,
of terrifying power,
a God who would always be faithful to his promises –
and, as her Son showed, a God of unfathomable love.

Had she any inkling that this was not the final “lifting up from the earth”?

In her mind, I’m sure not.
But in her heart, in the depths of her soul where God had dwelt forever…?

Because, of course,
Calvary was not the final lifting-up.

His mother Mary could receive his lifeless Body come down from the cross,
as once she had received him in her womb
and clothed him there with earthly life.
But his other Parent,
his heavenly Father,
received him, too.
It was that Father who had sent his Son into human life;
it was the Spirit of God who had hovered over Mary
and wakened the life-giving powers within her.

And when Jesus’ Body
that had been lifted up from the earth
was taken down to the ground
and laid further down in a tomb –
when that Body was laid in the lap of his Father, he was lifted up again.

Once again the Son of Man, the Son of God, was lifted up.

“Lifted up” is all of that.
We can carry it further on our own
– from Mary taking the Baby from the manger to flee for his safety into Egypt,
to that kind of second moment of the Resurrection
when Jesus ascends finally to his Father’s side.

He is lifted up from the earth
so that we, too, might find life beyond earth,
so that we might see our life from a higher perspective,
so earth will not limit our life.

The rest of Lent is going to depend on this.
We began Lent with eyes focused pretty much on earth, on our own short-comings –
the ways we are too earthly.
Now we’ve reached the middle.
Now we’re starting down the down-side.

Keep going. Continue gathering momentum.
Make sure that your lifting-up will not end at the Cross.

Remember, it’s a pun;
it’s got a couple meanings.
Yes, we might be lifted up on a cross. It happens to people every day.
Maybe you have your cross tucked away with you even now.

But there is another lifting-up.
Jesus knew we would have to pass through the first. He came to accompany us,
so that we might accompany him passing through the second lifting-up –
so that we might rise with the Son of Man,
the Son of God,
on the last day.

Jesus rose. We will, too.