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Get Real

Fourth Sunday of Lent. Fr John O’Connor considers how the Cross demands that we face up to reality.

The poet TS Eliot famously wrote: ‘Humankind cannot bear too much reality.’

Exactly what he meant by this is perhaps not obvious. Maybe we find the ordinary day- to-day realities, routines, the same people, the same places, in some ways hard to bear.

But maybe Eliot’s words are also directed at something more fundamental: the realities involved in our spiritual growth as mature human beings. Life itself, no matter how we arrange it, challenges our restless hearts; and various forms of fantasy provide a quick and easy escape. ‘Humankind cannot bear too much reality’.

As is always the case with the Gospels, and perhaps especially with the Gospel of St John, there are so many different elements that can be reflected upon in any given passage. In coming to today’s Gospel reading, what struck me most forcibly this time is a theme that runs through the whole of John’s Gospel: namely, the theme of facing up to truth, facing up to reality.

The Gospel passage for this Sunday says a good deal more about this subject than I can manage to do justice to in a single sermon, so let me focus on one important strand. Consider these perhaps puzzling words of Jesus:

‘And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’

Here Jesus uses the image of Moses lifting up the serpent in the desert, which is then linked with the lifting up of the Son of man. This is a reference to Jesus’s crucifixion, lifted up on the cross; but also to Jesus’s resurrection, lifted up from the tomb by the Father, by the power of the Spirit.

But why did Jesus use the image of Moses and the bronze serpent in the desert? Well, had I been sitting with Jesus and Nicodemus when all this was being spoken, I could have asked Jesus about it! But, even so, let me venture an answer.

In the Book of Numbers, Chapter 21, there is an account of part of the journey of the Israelites in the desert having left Egypt. During their passage through the wilderness, the Israelites grumbled and complained incessantly against Moses and the Lord. And for this they were afflicted with an infestation of poisonous snakes, which killed some of them. The Lord, however, gave Moses a remedy for the sickness wrought by the snakes. Moses made a serpent out of bronze and put it on a pole for the people to look upon. Anyone who was bitten and who looked upon the bronze serpent would live.

Yet, this seems a very strange remedy, the last thing one would normally think of recommending as a cure: to look upon an image of the very thing that caused the problem in the first place.

Rather than look upon something to take their attention away from snakes, as we might have expected; they were to face up to reality full-on: not only the snakes but, also implicitly face up to the painful reality of their role in coming to this pass. And the same is also present when we gaze on the cross. The big statement, if you like, that the cross makes is about the depth of divine love for you and for me; but it also reminds us of uncomfortable truths about what human beings are capable of.

The point is: liberation and healing, if they are to have full depth, must ultimately engage with the truth, with reality, both the positive parts and the negative.

It is for this reason that sometimes people go back into their personal histories, not to get stuck in the past, but to face up to something that is holding them back and that they can benefit from if they face up to it, perhaps with the help of someone sufficiently experienced and wise.

And haven’t we all at some time or other had a conversation with a dear friend or loved one who pointed out to us things that we were previously not willing or able to hear, and who spoke to us with love; and this time the point got through and a moment of liberation and insight took place?

Even if such moments sometimes play an important role, it is perhaps still the case that the bulk of growth in truth and in engaging with reality is much less dramatic: more along the line of growth in maturity and authenticity – facing up to strengths and weaknesses, examining as truthfully as we can our perspectives and seeking to dismantle whatever is false in our personal inner narratives.

All this involves a schooling of the heart and mind – a schooling that is much easier to speak about than to do, not only because of the complexities in ourselves but also because of the complicated worlds we inhabit. Many people, to be fair, already struggle with keeping things afloat. We can perhaps only do so much at any given time.

For most of us, assuming we make the effort, this is about seeing ourselves as ongoing works in progress. But, mercifully, since Jesus tells us later in the Gospel of John that he will send the Spirit to abide in us, and this Spirit is also ‘the Spirit of truth’, we are not alone on our journey. Jesus through his Spirit accompanies us along the way – which is just as well, since we simply cannot do it on our own. And we should not be shy in asking the Lord for help. We should not be shy in asking the Lord to shed his light upon us in order to bring us to what is most real and to set us free.

Readings: 2 Chronicles 36:14-16,19-23 | Ephesians 2:4-10 | John 3:14-21

Fr John O'Connor is Regent of Studies of the English Province and Regent of Blackfriars, Oxford.
john.oconnor@english.op.org

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