Covid aside, the news this week has been dominated by public splits/tensions in the royal family as well as the Pope’s hugely symbolic visit to Iraq and his meeting with the Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani. Both these stories are far removed from our Gospel, or so it might appear. But maybe they not as far removed as we might think.
On this fourth Sunday of Lent the authors of John’s gospel bring yet more paradox: despite being freed from slavery in Egypt the Israelites still grumble, never thankful, never gracious. In the wilderness, a plague of serpents enters their camp, bites them and many die. Moses lifts up the bronze serpent, they behold it and they are cured: what brings the disease in one form cures the disease in another, not unlike a good vaccination I suppose.
We too are bitten by death. The Son of Man is lifted up on the cross, we behold him and we too are saved. Just like the serpent: in one form death brings a loss of life, in another form – the crucifixion of the Son of Man – death brings a fullness of life. The words of judgement are that those who enter into this revelation and integrate it into their own lives are not condemned. And the others? Well, it seems they chose to separate themselves from the source of life. But why in heavens’ name would anyone refuse the love of God revealed in the Son?
The authors love the contrast between light and darkness. Some say that preferring darkness – aka self-condemnation – is both easier and more mysterious than we think. When we read today that God does not condemn, we breathe a sigh of relief. But others do condemn, as we know only too well. On social media people are shamed, condemned and metaphorically executed, we are put on the scales of someone else’s priorities, someone else’s mindset and we are often found wanting. Thank goodness that God abandons judgement and condemnation in favour of salvation and hope. That I think is the essence of Francis’ message from Iraq. Let’s hope and pray that his words are heeded: ‘Let us not allow the light of heaven be overshadowed by the darkness of hatred.”