[Homily: ADDU Live-streamed Mass. 31 March, 2020.]
I would like to propose to you three images for your reflection and prayer that come from our readings and our global situation today.
The first comes from our first reading from the Book of Numbers.
In the desert, the Lord had punished the Israelites, whom he had freed from slavery in Egypt, for their complaining, their murmuring, their ingratitude. As a punishment, the Lord sent seraph snakes to afflict the people. Many of them died. Suffering, the Israelites realized their sin; their sin was of ingratitude, lack of patience and longsuffering, lack of trust, lack of reverence and respect for their God. To bring them to their senses God used one of his creatures, small, poisonous snakes.. With the infestation came suffering and death, but it forced the people to humble themselves, remember their God, recall their experience of his graciousness in their lives, recall their arrogance and sins, and repent. They begged Moses to implore the Lord to free them from the snakes, and from the sickness and death they brought.
The Lord’s response to Moses’ plea on behalf of his people was extraordinary because the Israelites were formed not to make graven images. But the Lord said to Moses, “Make a seraph and mount it on a pole and whoever looks at it after being bitten will live.”
So that is what Moses did. Numbers says, “Moses accordingly made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole, and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent on a pole, he lived.”
That Old Testament image of a serpent on a pole was a precursor of the central image of the New Testament, Jesus so tortured and wounded he resembles not even a snake but a worm affixed to a cross. From this cross, he cries out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” (Ps. 22:1). It is not a complaint to the Father for having abandoned him, but Jesus’ free and obedient identification with the Suffering Servant of Psalm 22, who says, “I am a worm, and no man, a reproach of men and despised by the people. All those who see Me ridicule Me; they shoot off their mouth, they shake their head, saying, ‘He trusted in the Lord, let Him rescue Him’” (Ps 22:6-8). In this context, we can consider the words of Jesus in our Gospel passage for today from St. John: “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM, and that I do nothing on my own, but I only say what the Father taught me. The One who sent me is with me” (Jn 8:28).
Again: “When you lift up the Son of Man” on the Cross, “then you will realize that I AM.” In saying, I AM, Jesus is identifying himself completely with his Father, who named himself, “I AM … I AM WHO AM” (Ex 3:14). Jesus says, “I do nothing on my own, but I say only what the Father taught me. The One who sent me is with me.” With me. Recall in hearing this the words of John’s Prologue, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word with God, and the Word was God.” On his Cross, Jesus is the sublime image perfectly depicting the compassionate Father whose Word, whose self-expression becomes Flesh, now this torn and tortured flesh, that all those who gaze on him and recognize in him the loving, saving and redeeming Father, might be freed from death and the darkness of sin, and have life. Lifted up on his Cross, Jesus lifts us all up to himself, that he may lift us up redeemed to the Father.
In gazing on this image of the worm on the Cross, tortured by the pain and poison of our sins, we have life.
Those of you who prayed with Pope Francis on the empty St. Peter’s square wet with the tears of so many today suffering from this global corona-virus pandemic know that Pope Frances led us to pray before the healing image of Jesus on the Cross.
The third image I would like to propose to you for reflection and prayer is the image of the coronavirus as a metaphor of sin: pride, ingratitude, avarice, cruelty, selfishness, violence. Sin does not start in Wuhan. It starts within. It is an invisible destructive force, not even alive, but an enemy of life; it invades our interiority, evades or confounds our defenses, works destructively, then multiplies. It is highly contagious, passed from human being to human being through droplets of toxic human insensitivity, multiplying itself as it undermines our cultures of family, work, worship and socializing, forcing human beings apart from one another. The scientists map the spread of the virus, contaminating country after country, afflicting curiously the wealthy, the educated, the developed countries worst, whose science and wisdom and industry and wealth and power fail to defeat it. They called first for “social distancing.” They erred. They now call for “physical distancing.” For humanity needs to recover its social human closeness and solidarity. Or perish.
Confronting the third image, Pope Francis today leads us to Jesus gazing into our hearts from the Cross.