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Online Edition: June 2010

Vol. XVI, No. 4

The Lifting up of Jesus

by Thomas G. Weinandy, O.F.M., Cap.

In the course of this past Lent, the Paschal Triduum and the subsequent Easter Season (2010), I have pondered the biblical image of the “lifting up” of Jesus. The Gospel of John, frequently proclaimed in the liturgy during these seasons, provides the biblical basis for this ego eimi (Greek: I Am) image.

The first reference begins with Jesus telling Nicodemus: “No one has ascended into heaven but He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 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” (John 3:13-14).

As Moses’ lifting up of the serpent brought healing to the sinful Israelites, so the lifting up of the Son of Man will bring eternal life to those who believe in Him. What are the people to believe? “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He” (8:28). In the lifting up of the Son of Man, people will come to recognize and so believe that Jesus is truly God — I am He (ego eimi).

Moreover, it is in this lifting up that Jesus will draw all men to Himself. “‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.’ He said this to show by what death He was to die” (12:32-33).

The Jews protested that the Christ is to remain forever and so not die. “How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up?” (12:34) With these passages in mind, I will now develop their biblical, liturgical and theological significance.

The Cross

The “lifting up”, in the first instance, refers to the cross. It is on the cross that Jesus fulfills and completes the prefigurement of Moses lifting up the serpent. Through Jesus’ death on the cross, mankind is healed of the evil of sin and reconciled to the Father. The lifting up on the cross was intended to be an instrument of death, yet, in being lifted up on the cross, Jesus put death to death.

Death died on the cross because the cross is the supreme expression of Jesus’ love both for the Father and for all of humanity. Love is stronger than death. So much did Jesus love the Father that He was willing, as the obedient Son, to offer, in love, His life to the Father as an atoning sacrifice for sin. So much did Jesus love mankind that He willingly offered, in love, His life as an atoning sacrifice on our behalf.

It is the twofold offering in love that humanly manifests Jesus’ divine love and so reveals, as the centurion recognized, that Jesus truly is the Son of God (see Mark 15:30) — the great I AM. Through the cross, Jesus draws all human beings to Himself for it is as the crucified Savior that people will come to faith in Him as the loving divine Son of the Father and so obtain eternal life.

This “lifting up” on the cross is, then, “the hour” for through it the Father reveals His Son’s eternal divine glory. He “lifted up His eyes to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given Him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given Him. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent’” (John 17:1-3).

This threefold Johannine proclamation of Jesus being lifted up upon the cross finds its liturgical expression in the Good Friday Celebration of the Lord’s Passion, where the crucifix is lifted up before the congregation three times and the minister thrice proclaims: “This is the wood of the cross, on which hung the Savior of the world.”

Through this liturgical action, Jesus draws to Himself all who gaze upon the crucifix calling them to believe that He truly is the divine Son of the Father — “I am He”. Moreover, while it is the crucified Jesus that is displayed before the congregation, such a lifting up bears witness to the hour of Jesus’ glory as the divine savior of the world. The faithful are, therefore, summoned to adore Him: “Come, let us worship”. The king of the Jews has now also become the savior of all mankind throughout all ages.

The Resurrection and Ascension

While the “lifting up” initially refers to the cross, there is also embedded within that “lifting up” the reality of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Actually, it is precisely because Jesus willingly, in love, allowed Himself to be lifted up upon the cross that the Father lifts Him up to the new and glorious life of the resurrection. “When He had made purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name He has obtained is more excellent than theirs” (Hebrews 1:3-4).

The lifting up of the resurrection bears witness to the salutary effects of Jesus’ twofold loving atoning sacrifice. “We see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death” (Hebrews 2:9). So pleased was the Father with Jesus lifting Himself up upon the cross that He would not allow His holy Son to see corruption and so lifted Jesus up from the dead so that He might ascend and sit at the Father’s right hand in glory (see Acts 2:25-33).

Even though the Son was divine by nature, He humbled Himself becoming man. Being found in human form, “He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on the cross”. It was because of His humble, obedient love that the Father therefore “highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:6-11).

Jesus reaps the first fruits of the efficacy of His own sacrificial lifting up by being the first to be lifted up gloriously from the tomb — sin and death having been vanquished in His very person as the Son of God incarnate. “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience through what He suffered, and being made perfect He became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:9).

The resurrection is the perfection of Jesus’ humanity, for through His priestly offering of that humanity on the cross, He conquered, through obedient love, sin and death and so obtained perfection not only for Himself but also for all who believe in Him. Now Jesus, in exaltation, is lifted up as the everlasting glorious High Priest forever making intercession on behalf of mankind (See Hebrews 7:25). The resurrection and ascension is the Father’s answer, then, to the question put to Jesus by the Jews: Since the Christ must remain forever, how can the Son of Man be lifted up? (see John 12:34). The “lifting up” is twofold — the cross and resurrection, the first in time and the second forever.

As with the Good Friday celebration, so there is a threefold lifting up of the risen Jesus at the Easter Vigil under the symbol of the Paschal Candle. With each lifting up the priest intones: “Christ our light”. It is the lifted-up crucified and risen Savior who is now the salvific light in the darkness of the world of sin and death and it is this light — the light of divine truth and the light of divine life — that draws all humanity to Jesus, the lamb once slain who now lives forever (see Revelation 5:9-14).

Moreover, the light of the Paschal Candle also bears witness to the triumphant glory of the cross and so now to Jesus’ never-ending resurrected/ascended glorification by the Father in the Holy Spirit. The Paschal Candle is also the light of our hope for as we die with Jesus in our baptism, sharing His tomb, so are we lifted up with Him to newness of life (see Romans 6:3-4). The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is the guarantee, the first down payment, of our own anticipated glorious lifting up at the end of time (see II Corinthians 1:22 and Ephesians 1:13-14).

The Begetting of the Son

Jesus prayed that the Father would give Him the glory that He possessed from the beginning. The Father answered that prayer both in the lifting up on the cross and in the lifting up of the resurrection/ascension. This twofold historical lifting up provides a revelatory window to what is eternally the case. The cross and resurrection may be the earthly referent to the “lifting up”, but the primordial referent to this “lifting up” is the Father’s eternal begetting of His Son.

Here is the eternal heavenly foundation for the earthly lifting up on the cross in time and the historical lifting up of Jesus into heaven at His resurrection. From all eternity, the Father, in begetting His Son in the love of the Holy Spirit, lifted Him up in that He shared with Him the whole of His deity. In the paternal love of the Spirit, the Father poured out the whole of Himself in the begetting of His Son and in so doing, He lifted up His Son so that His Son would be God as He Himself is God.

Moreover, the Son, as the true image and perfect likeness of the Father, gives Himself completely to the Father in the filial love of the Spirit. As the Father is defined as Father in the complete giving of Himself to the Son in the love of the Spirit, so the Son is defined as Son in the complete giving of Himself to the Father in the same love of the Spirit.

Thus, the Father eternally rejoices in the Son’s complete love for Him as His Son, and the Son eternally rejoices in the Father’s complete love for Him as His Father. This mutual love of the Holy Spirit motivates the Father not only to glorify the Son and motivates the Son not only to glorify the Father within their eternal Trinitarian life, but it also motivates them to desire to glorify one another before others. Creation, especially the creation of human beings, provides the Father the opportunity to lift up His Son so that all would recognize what He sees from all eternity — the glorious splendor of His all-loving and faithful Son.

Creation also provides the opportunity for the Son lovingly to glorify His Father, in the very act of His being lifted up, thus manifesting to all of humanity the eternal loving-kindness of His Father. The cross and resurrection become then the earthly historical events, events for all to see and hear and even touch, through which the Father lifts up and glorifies the Son in the love of the Spirit and the Son, in being lifted up in glory, glorifies the Father in the same love of the Spirit. Having witnessed, in the lifting up upon the cross and in the resurrection, the divine splendor of the Son, human beings and all of the creation are drawn to Him and, in faith, proclaim Him Lord and Savior to the glory of God the Father (see Philippians 2:11).

The Eucharistic Liturgy

The sacrifice of the Mass not only recalls the past historical events of the cross and resurrection, it makes present these mysteries so that the faithful are able to share in their reality and partake of their benefits. In numerous words and actions, Jesus is lifted up within the Eucharistic liturgy. These words and actions are efficacious in that, through them, the reality they symbolize is made present so that the faithful can partake of them.

The Mass is composed of two parts — the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist. In both parts, Jesus is lifted up in various ways. In the liturgy of the Word, this is primarily enacted in the proclaiming, the lifting up, of the word, especially in the procession with the Book of the Gospel, the solemn incensing of the book and its being lifted up at the end of the proclamation with the intoning “The Gospel of the Lord”.

To which the congregation responds: “Praise to you Lord, Jesus Christ”.

In the proclamation of the scriptures, particularly the Gospel, with the accompanying actions, Jesus, as the eternal Word, the eternal Truth of God, is being lifted up, but not simply as the eternal Word begotten as Son before the ages. It is primarily Jesus, the Incarnate Word, who spoke human words and who performed human bodily deeds who is being lifted up. This historical Gospel draws mankind to Jesus, and it is through faith in these revealed mysteries, Jesus and His salvific death and resurrection, proclaimed now in the midst of the faithful, that eternal life is obtained. Jesus is also lifted up in the homily, where the priest or deacon expounds the Scriptures so as to enflame the hearts of the faithful with love for Jesus and so profess the Creed with the conviction of the Holy Spirit.

There are multiple lifting ups within the liturgy of the Eucharist. The first is at the Offertory where the priest offers, lifts up, the bread and wine expressing the desire of the faithful to offer their lives in union with Christ and confidently acknowledging that the Father will find these gifts acceptable and so transform them into “the bread of life” and “spiritual drink”.

The second “lifting up” is after the consecration of the bread and the wine. The Father having transformed, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the bread and wine into the risen body and risen blood of Jesus, the priest lifts them up so that the faithful in contemplating the crucified and risen Jesus might be drawn to Him as their divine savior and so obtain eternal life through faith in Him. The doxology is the pinnacle of Jesus being lifted up; the rubrics describe this: the priest takes “the chalice and the paten with the host and, lifting them up, [he] sings or says”. The priest, speaking on behalf of the faithful, offers the risen Lord Jesus in union with His mystical body, the Church, as the one and everlasting atoning sacrifice to the Father.

It is this lifting up of Jesus that gives glory to the Father for in this lifting up Jesus gives to the Father the everlasting gift of Himself for the salvation of the world. “Through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, almighty Father, forever and ever.”

This lifting up is also the supreme liturgical glorification of Jesus, the supreme drawing of all to Himself, for the faithful throughout the ages acknowledge through their “great Amen” that Jesus is indeed the one through whom, with whom and in whom they are reconciled to the Father. Moreover, it is through Him, with Him and in Him, by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, that the faithful obtain eternal life with all of the saints and angels.

The sacrifice of the Mass, to which all of the faithful are now united, is also symbolized in the priest slightly lifting up the host and breaking it as the sign of Jesus’ broken crucified body, and placing a small piece in the sacred blood, saying: “May this mingling of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ bring eternal life to us who receive it.”

Having been united to Jesus’ one sacrifice and lifted up with Him to the Father, the faithful are now prepared to share in this Eucharistic sacrifice by receiving the sacred body and blood of Christ. The priest once more lifts up the host and proclaims that indeed “this is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Happy are those who are called to His supper.” In this lifting up, Jesus is once more drawing the faithful to Himself so that by receiving Him in Holy Communion they might happily share in His heavenly banquet.

Before receiving the body and blood of Jesus, the faithful are to make one last expression of their faith in Him. As they approach the minister, he lifts up the host and proclaims: “The body of Christ”.

To which the faithful respond, in faith, “Amen” — so be it. The faithful now fully share in the fruit of Jesus being lifted up — lifted up on the cross, lifted up in the resurrection and ascension, lifted up within the Eucharistic liturgy — for they are now in communion with Him partaking, in the Spirit, of His risen body and blood and so become more fully members of His mystical body. They too share in His glory and sit with Him at the right hand of the Father.

In the begetting of His Son, in the love of the Holy Spirit, the Father eternally lifts up His Son. Now, in the same love of the Holy Spirit, the Father lifts up His adopted children by allowing them to share, through His Son’s risen humanity, the same intimacy of life and love that exists within the Trinity itself.

The Definitive Lifting up

As the Eucharistic liturgy makes present the past lifting up of Jesus — His cross and resurrection — and in so doing allows the faithful to unite themselves to these realities and partake of their benefits, so the Eucharistic liturgy foreshadows and anticipates the final and definitive lifting up — the Second Coming of Jesus at the end of time. While Jesus will “come down” from heaven, this coming down is actually the consummate “lifting up”.

As the Father bestowed all glory on His Son in the eternal begetting, the eternal lifting up, so He will display and lift up His incarnate Son in all of His risen glory at the end of time. The whole of creation will then jubilantly cry out: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Revelation 5:12).

This consummate lifting up will also be the consummate drawing, for here Jesus will draw to Himself all faithful men and women of every age. Here too the faithful will acknowledge Him, in the Holy Spirit, to be the great “I AM” — the Lord of lords and King of kings.

In the new Jerusalem there will be no temple, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it, and its gates shall never be shut by day — and there shall be not night there; they shall bring into it the glory and honor of the nations” (Revelation 21:22-26).

In so doing the nations will share in the fullness of Jesus’ risen life and so be lifted up with Him, body and soul, to the glory of heaven. As one new man in Christ the Son, the faithful, in this consummate and everlasting lifting up, will experience, as Spirit-filled sons and daughters, the fullness of their own fraternal fellowship and the full love and life of the Father.

***

Father Thomas G. Weinandy, OFM, Cap., is Executive Director of the Secretariat of Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC.

***

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