sabato 10 marzo 2018

«Dives in misericordia»

Milan, Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, 
the “Serpent Column” (left) and the “Cross Column” (right)

This Sunday is halfway through Lent. It is called Laetare Sunday, from the first word of the Entrance Antiphon—an invitation for us to suspend for a day the Lenten penance and to rejoice, so that we may get our breath back for the final sprint before Easter.

In today’s gospel we have heard the second of the three passages from John’s gospel about Christ’s coming glorification through his cross and resurrection. This selection is taken from the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, one of his supporters, who belonged to the sect of Pharisees and was a member of the Sanhedrin. Jesus recalls an event of the Old Testament, when the people complained against Moses in the desert, and God sent among them fiery serpents, so that many of them died. The Israelites acknowledged their sin and went to Moses to ask for his intercession. Then God ordered Moses to make a bronze serpent and mount it on a pole, so that those who had been bitten by the serpents might look at it and recover. Well, Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” The bronze serpent, lifted up in the desert, becomes a symbol of Jesus himself. The serpent was mounted on a pole; Jesus will be lifted up on a cross. Those who looked at the serpent were healed; those who believe in Jesus will have eternal life. Please notice the verb chosen by John: while in the Bible we read that Moses mounted the bronze serpent on a pole, now John says that he lifted it up, and Jesus will likewise be lifted up. John often uses ambiguous expressions in his gospel; in this case, to be lifted up can be understood both in a physical and in a symbolic meaning: Jesus will be lifted up not only because he will be raised from the ground and nailed to the cross, but also because he will be exalted and glorified. Be careful, Jesus will be glorified not only at his resurrection, but even on his cross. The death on the cross, according to John, is not a defeat but a victory; it is “the hour … for the Son of Man to be glorified” (Jn 12:23). 

If for Jesus the cross is an instrument of glory, for us it is an instrument of salvation. Just as the Israelites in the desert had to look at the serpent to be healed, so we have to look at Jesus lifted up on the cross—which means, we have to believe in him, if we want to be saved. Faith is the only way to salvation. Man cannot be saved by himself. As all the readings of today’s liturgy remind us, the only thing man can do is sin; the only works he is able to do are evil. And for this he deserves death. Man is unable to save himself. The only possibility for him to be saved is in God’s mercy. Fortunately, Paul tells us that God is “rich in mercy” (dives in misericordia). That is why he “gave his only Son;” he sent his Son into the world not “to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” What a great love God showed us! As Paul reminded us two weeks ago, God “did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all” (Rom 8:32). It is all free; we have to do nothing, but to believe, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.” We have to do nothing else but to receive the gift of God. And that is faith: to believe means to open our own hands to receive the gift of God. 

What if we do not believe? Will God condemn us? Today’s gospel answers, “Whoever does not believe has already been condemned.” As Saint Paul says, we are already “dead for our transgressions.” Jesus has come precisely to save us from sin and death. If we do not take this opportunity, so much the worse for us! There is no other way out: we are doomed to remain dead.

A final point: since salvation is a gift of God and depends on faith, not on our works, are these not important at all? Saint Paul clarifies even this point: works are not the cause of our salvation, but they are the purpose of it, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast. For we are his handiwork, created in Christ for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.” We are not saved because of our good works, but we can do—indeed, we must do—good works because we have been saved.