Three times in the Gospel of John, Jesus speaks of being ‘lifted up’. And today this happens. Today he’s lifted up, as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert. He’s lifted up like the servant in the prophecy of Isaiah. He’s lifted up as the supreme high priest who will go through to the highest heavens. It’s God, his Father, our Father, who lifts him up.
The whole endeavour of this liturgy – all the walks and ways of the Cross that happen on Good Friday – our own devotion, all this too is a lifting up of Christ. This is why the ministers went down on the ground at the beginning of this liturgy. And now in three different moments and ways, Christ is lifted up before us: in the readings and intercessions, in the showing of the Cross, and in Holy Communion. ‘See, my servant will prosper, said the 1st reading, he shall be lifted up, exalted, rise to great heights.’ ‘Behold, the wood of the Cross, on which hung the salvation of the world’, Fr Keith will sing when the Cross is carried in. ‘Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world’, I’ll say before Holy Communion.
Scotland’s favourite painting, it’s said, kept at the Kelvingrove Gallery in Glasgow, is Salvador Dali’s The Christ of St John of the Cross. It shows Christ on the Cross suspended, lifted up over the world: over a cloudscape and a lake.
‘And we took no account of him’, says Isaiah. We take no account of him when we sin. We often take no account of him even when we don’t. But the Father lifts him up. For three reasons, let’s say, the Father lifts him up.
Christ – in all his life and generosity – is lifted up to protect us. ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I longed to gather your children, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings’ (Mt 23:37). Those outstretched arms are his wings. ‘He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High and abides in the shade of the Almighty / says to the Lord “my refuge, / my stronghold, my God in whom I trust”. It is he who will free you from the snare / of the fowler who seeks to destroy you; / he will conceal you with his pinions / and under his wings you will find refuge’ (Ps 90). Life can be terrifying. Shock and horror, like the Passion itself, like what happened on Palm Sunday to the Egyptian Christians. But in Christ, in his life, his death, his resurrection, in the force of his prayer before the Father, there is a life and a love for which suffering and death are too small. There’s something greater than our weakness. The 2nd reading mention a ‘throne of grace’. It’s Christ himself. And so, we are protected. ‘You will not fear the terror of the night / nor the arrow that flies by day, / nor the plague that prowls in the darkness / nor the scourge that lays waste at noon’ (Ps 90).
‘And we took no account of him.’
He’s lifted up to be seen. ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced.’ He’s lifted up so he can see us and we see him. So eyes can meet. So prayer can happen. So we’re not constantly tangled in the here below and the immediate. So our low ideas of happiness are raised higher. So we have another horizon, someone to look at.
And he’s lifted up – thirdly – to draw all men, all people, all things to himself. ‘Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary of Magdala.’ Three women – hardly ‘all men’! And one man, the disciple Jesus loved. They’re the quartet drawn to the Cross. ‘And [the rest] took no account of him.’ But they’re a beginning, a circle that will expand. The quartet becomes an orchestra. It becomes all the faithful of all time, the universal Church, the communion of saints, a people of every ‘nation, race, tribe and language, impossible to count’ (Rev 7:9). Jesus is lifted up to capture our hearts and make them open to each other. He’s lifted up to draw us together round him. ‘Woman, this is your son…This is your mother…and the disciple made a place for her in his home.’ Jesus is lifted up to create a new way of being together, a world of new relationships, a new peace.
And Christ is always there, lifted up. He’s always over our lives, over our hearts, over our world. The blood and water, the grace and the goodness. Heavenly Father, have us take account of him, lift us up with him: keep us safe under his wings, open our eyes to see him, draw us all to him. Amen.