Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B
Last Sunday, we saw that the Paschal way necessarily bids us pass through an overturning, an inversion of perspective. The Gospel passage that we read today permits us to remain in this transition and to study it in depth later on. We’re in chapter 3 of John’s Gospel, made up in large part by the night-time dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a man who is seeking truth and in his search draws near to Jesus. In this way, he begins a complex dialogue, in which Jesus throws open before the teacher of the Law rays of new light and Nicodemus is called to a total “overturning”.
The verses that we read today (Jn 3:14- 21) are Jesus’ answer to the third comment of Nicodemus. Jesus just told him that to enter life one needs to be born from above, and that this birth cannot be the work of man: it is gift of God, through His Spirit. Faced with this perspective Nicodemus’ bewilderment is great: he began his speech by telling of knowing something (Jn 3:2 – “we know that you have come from God”), but then all his knowing leaves room for questions, like a man who does not understand: “How can a man once grown old be born again?” (Jn 3:4), and: “How can this happen?” (Jn 3:9).
To be with Nicodemus in understanding that all this can only happen by grace, Jesus uses an image taken from the Book of Numbers (21:4-9): an image that recounts a famous event on Israel’s march in the desert, when, as a result of the umpteenth grumbling by the Israelites, God sends poisonous serpents in the midst of the people, and “a great number of Israelites died.” The people recognize their sin and they ask Moses to intercede with the Lord. He hears their prayer and he raises a bronze serpent on a pole: whoever looked at the serpent, after having been bitten, would be healed.
This image shows our reality as creatures wounded and redeemed. That is to say, it shows that we are sick persons and the sickness is such as to lead to death, that is, to the definitive lack of eternal life. This image, nevertheless, shows that there is the remedy, and it consists in looking to the Son of man raised on the cross: there are no other cures but this.
The love of God is there, on the cross, for everyone: nothing else can heal us but this crucified Love, the total gift of self that the Father makes by giving us the Son (Jn 3:16). But only those who lift up their eyes and stand before such a God can be saved.
For this to happen, two things are important.
The first is to recognize one’s sin, to recognize one’s sickness, and one’s need for healing. Whoever does not do it, remains isolated unto himself, without expecting salvation from anyone. It’s not enough to recognize one’s mistakes, one’s errors: it’s something more profound, it’s to go to the roots of the evil that indwells us, which is to live as if life was not a gift of God, as not being in relationship, in communion with the Lord. Sin is one’s inability to say “thanks”, to attribute everything to oneself. Recognizing this is not at all obvious, it’s not something that a person can do alone, with one’s own powers, but it’s gift of God. A gift to desire and to request.
The second transition is to turn one’s eyes away from self, even from one’s sin, to fix one’s gaze on something else: salvation is to see one’s evil and not to remain there, it is to make our sickness impel us to ask for help, to ask for healing. Looking at Him is the act of faith, it is to look to Him expecting life from Him; and it is only by means of this faith that one can be reborn.
The Book of Wisdom, commenting on the episode of the serpent (Wisdom 16:5-7), says it clearly: “For the one who turned toward it was saved, not by the object that he saw, but by you, the savior of all,” which is why the liberation from the poison of death was given to the faith of those who entrusted themselves to that “symbol of salvation” (Sap 16: 6) that was placed on high, so that everyone, near and far, could see it.
Salvation is for everyone, but it can happen that one live without knowing to be saved. And this is the great misfortune of man, a misfortune greater than sin itself: not knowing, not believing to have been forgiven.
At this point, Jesus says that “God so loved the world as to give His only-begotten Son, so that whoever believes in Him does not die, but has life everlasting” (Jn 3:16) and He adds that the Father did not send Him to judge the world but to save it (Jn 3:17-18).
Nicodemus probably thought that God send the Son to judge the world: if man sinned, it’s normal that he is judged. And in part this is true. There is judgment, but in this judgment God does not pose as a judge, but as an advocate and physician.
The idea of God as a merciless judge leads to death. The judgment is what each one chooses for oneself at the moment when he rejects the reality of a God who saves, and who saves like this, dying on a cross for all.
Nicodemus is called to make this transition, this overturning. From what he knows about God (Jn 3:2) to gaze on a Love by which he lets himself simply to be looked at and to be loved by God. This is the true, big overturning, this is the conversion to which we all are called.