I will lift up my eyes to the hills – Second Sunday in Lent 2011

The story of Israel begins with a journey: Abraham sets out in faith for the Promised Land. The language of pilgrimage is built in to what we think christian life is about. We are pilgrims on a journey.

Of course it is true that life is a journey from birth to childhood to adolescence to maturity to old age to death. We are all somewhere on that journey. But the christian pilgrimage is distinct. That’s part of what our Gospel today is getting at when it says “You must be born from above (or born again)” (Jn 3:7).  It’s not a matter of re-entering our mother’s womb and re-tracing our steps; it’s about another journey entirely. Like the wind, whose origin and destination are mysterious, so is this journey at the level of spirit.

We can think about our christian journey in terms of its destination, its beginning, and the road it takes.

Our destination is God himself. To see him “face to face”; to be united with him as lover and beloved; to be made complete by being possessed entirely by our creator. We use all kinds of images for this destination: the Promised Land; the New Jerusalem; our heart’s true home; the wedding feast of the Lamb. What impels us towards our destination is desire and longing. How many phrases of longing do we find in the psalms! “My soul has a desire and longing to enter into the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out to the Living God.” Made in the image of God, we cannot be fulfilled until we are united with the original; there is a God-shaped hole in the human heart. As St Augustine puts it, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.” All our longing for beauty, for justice, for goodness, for love – are reflections of this longing for God which is deep in us, even if we don’t realise it or recognise it. Sometimes, of course, our desire for God gets drowned out by other, insistent desires; sometimes we give our desire to things that are good in themselves, but distract us from seeking the ultimate Good. One of the functions of Lent is to get us to “lift up our eyes” to our true destination; to purify and strengthen our longing for God and his beauty and justice and goodness.

Pilgrimage doesn’t just happen; the pilgrim decides to undertake the journey. A familiar hymn speaks of “his first avowed intent to be a pilgrim”. It’s not enough that we have an innate desire for God; we also need to decide to act on that desire, an act of will. Ritually that act of willing takes place at baptism and confirmation. We renew this act of will each Easter when we renew our baptismal vows. In reality, it’s something we renew day after day as we lift up our eyes to our longed-for goal, and take another step forward. Sometimes we get tired on the journey, and start going around in circles, or even wandering off the path. Lent gives us an opportunity to renew the will to keep on the pilgrim way.

A conventional way of describing our journey of faith is that it is an ascent: we are climbing Jacob’s ladder, or we are going up the holy mountain. Our Gospel today talks about ascension. Only the one who descended, who came from God, can show us the way to ascend, to go up to God. And Jesus is lifted up , just as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent on its pole in the desert. We realise that this is a veiled reference to the Crucifixion. Jesus’ way of ascension, Jesus’ way of going up to God, the pilgrim path to our Promised Land, is cross-shaped. The Christian journey is the way of the Cross. The way to our heart’s desire is to let go of self. “He who loses his life for my sake will find it.”

We said that it is desire that impels us to undertake the journey to God; but our Gospel today reveals how that very desire is itself a response to God’s desire for us. “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son”. It is in response to God’s love that we undertake the journey; it is the faithfulness of God’s love that we discover as we tread the road; and at the end of our journey it is the fullness of God’s love that awaits us.

 

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