Yesterday the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, today Our Lady of Sorrows. So much pain around in the world. Doesn’t God ever get sick of it? I guess I do! But maybe this is why we need such feast days, then – to let God take the pain and give it some meaning, putting it in the context of being lifted up with Christ to victory and glory.
Sept 19. Sitting in the sun on a bench under a tree behind the monastery. It’s a truly beautiful afternoon. Sitting right next to me is Brother Gereon. He’s physically able to speak, but his brain can’t put three words together into a phrase. He can think things but cannot communicate them, this former head of the Chemical Geology Department at Georgia Tech. Still physically strong, he’s becoming less and less steady on his feet, taking small steps and placing each foot carefully as if he’s constantly walking on thin ice. My back pain gives me a nudge to remind me that he’s surely suffering a lot more than I am right now.
The gospel for mass on the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (Sept. 14) is John 3:13-17:
No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just 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. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
SOME HELP FROM JOHN’S GOSPEL
A Plot that often escapes us.
Although Christianity cannot resolve the paradox of evil; it can offer a unique perspective. Our faith sees all of reality in terms of a single vast story of God's boundless, extravagant, reckless, incomprehensible love for all of creation. The plot of this story is, by definition, wide enough and deep enough to embrace everything, from the sublime beauty of the Grand Canyon to the obscene ugliness of Auschwitz's gas ovens. But it is this breadth of vision that poses an inescapable problem for us humans: any vision that is vast enough to encompass both the greatest goodness and the most depraved wickedness, will of necessity stretch well beyond the limits of our human intellect. Much of the story line, in other words, is always going to remain incomprehensible to us.
Over the centuries people have looked for ways of talking about the mystery of human suffering that will make it a little less overwhelming. The Gospel of John offers us just such an image in the elegant use of a single Greek verb, hupsoō (hoop-so'-o).
Hupsoō, "to lift up" (its passive form is hupsōthēnai, "to be lifted up, to be raised high") is based on the preposition huper, "over, above," and usually has the figurative meaning of lifting someone to a position of honor, fame or power. Jesus uses it this way when he warns his followers, "Whoever exalts (hupsoō) himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted (hupsōthēnai)" (Matthew 23:12).
John uses the verb in its literal sense to express Christ's being physically "lifted up" on the cross: "And just as Moses lifted up (hupsoō) the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up (hupsōthēnai) so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life" (John 3:14-15). But later on, with his love for double meanings, John has Jesus give us this ambiguous promise: "And when I am lifted up (hupsōthēnai) from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself" (John 12:32-34). Does this "being lifted up" refer to Christ's being lifted up on the cross, or to his finally being lifted up in glory to the right hand of God in heaven? Or does it refer to both at the same time? By playing on the double meaning of hupsōthēnai, John deftly links our human suffering with the mystery of Calvary, and then, using the cross as the starting point, describes a single upward surge in which all of creation -- including sin and suffering -- is lifted heavenward by the power of God's infinite, unconditional love.