In today’s gospel we see Jesus in an encounter with the Pharisees as time rapidly approaches the events we know as Holy Week. One of the basic threads of this narrative is about the ability to see, to intuit, to recognize the swirl of events that are around you. At first glance they might seem random, chaotic, or singularly isolated. At second glance there might not be any greater clarity, but something edges up to the corner of consciousness – maybe only to be dismissed, to be misconstrued, lost, or attach itself in that nagging way some thoughts do. The thoughts that just won’t be on their way.
The Pharisees and other religious leaders have had about three years of reports, stories, encounters and more about this itinerant preacher from Galilee. How is it that the son of a carpenter is so well versed in Scripture and such a gifted orator? What about the reports of healings, driving out demons, healing leprosy, and most disturbing of all, raising that Bethany man from the dead? The pieces of the puzzle are all there waiting to be joined into one clear mosaic. He is the one who teaches with new authority, who commands the power of the sea, the one who implied he has the power to forgive sin! But they just can’t put it together. And up to now, that has been the easy part.
When Jesus says to Pharisees, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM”, he is not only pointing to the divine nature displayed in all his works, his miracles, his teaching, but he is pointing ahead to the Cross when their choice for life will be through the death of one man. But the Pharisees just can’t see it. And if they can’t see it now, what will they believe when they see the contradiction of the cross. It is and will be a “fish or cut bait” moment for the Pharisees.
Jesus’ words point back to the first reading – a story from the book of Exodus with the Hebrews traveling in the wilderness under the protection of God. Whenever they were in need, there was a divine supply of their needs – water, food, protection, and more. Yet they just can’t see it. They are ready to return to Egypt and take up the certainty of a roof over their heads and meals, even if it means slavery. They are ready to trade in Yahweh for the gods of Egypt. It is “fish or cut bait” moment for them as they decide which god to choose.
One Egyptian deity, Apep the snake god, was the god of death, darkness, but also oddly enough the god of medicine and healing. But there was one catch: worshipers were not to look upon the snake god. To raise their eyes and look on the snake was to receive the judgment of death from Apep and know eternal darkness. To keep one’s eyes cast down in worship was to know healing and to live.
The command from Moses for those who had been bitten by the fiery serpents was to choose. They had been bitten by a poisonous snake and will die unless the power of healing embraces them. Where will they look for healing? The snake god said never to raise your eyes, but to remain bowed in worship to a false god in order to be healed. Moses said to raise your eyes to the symbol of the false snake god raised up for healing – such a contraction. Will they risk death, but have faith that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would heal them?
The events of Holy Week will come fast and furious. From the grandeur of the entry in to Jerusalem, there is a slow descent into the horror of scourging and crucifixion. What was revealed in divine glory at the Transfiguration is morphing into a human horror. Contradictions will pile up one upon the next. The leadership will only see sedition and heresy. The disciples will eventually run away. Only a few will be there at the foot of the cross. “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM”
When they lift their eyes to the Cross, what will they see? What will you see? Will you see death or will you see the Glory of God. Not the dazzling glory of the Transfiguration, but the profound glory of Love willing to die that all might live. The events of Holy Week might seem random, chaotic, or singularly isolated. But it is not your first encounter with Holy Week. Perhaps this is the year of greater clarity? The year when you will see more clearly and the words of Holy Thursday will echo, “Do you realize what I have done for you?”