Symbols: Living and Dead–lectionary reflections for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

This week’s readings

Next Sunday’s gospel includes what is probably the most famous verse in all of scripture John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have everlasting life.”

I wonder whether Episcopalians, indeed anyone who isn’t an Evangelical Christian, can hear in those words the transforming and life-giving power of the gospel. Their ubiquity in contemporary culture (the placard with John 3:16) a fixture at sporting events since the early 1980s has numbed us to their power, and perhaps turned us off. During the Eucharist, when the moment comes for the “comfortable words,” I find myself avoiding John 3:16 and reading a different verse.

Words and images have power. Often that power comes not from what they refer or point to directly, but rather to associations we make with them. In the case of John 3:16, what comes to mind for me when I see that combination of word and number, is all of the ways Christianity succeeds in alienating people. After all, who, besides a Christian, would know the words to which John 3:16 points? To those who understand, the words may be life-giving, but to those not in on the language, they are meaningless. To the rest of us, John 3:16 is a dead symbol.

There’s a case before the European Court that tests the English government’s decision to ban the wearing of crosses by Christians. It’s a silly decision, on one level, for a cross on a chain is more a fashion statement than a faith statement, which is what the Archbishop of Canterbury seemed to be getting at. You can read about the controversy here.

So there’s John 3:16, a symbol of something, that is interpreted differently by different people. There’s another symbol in this week’s texts, that of the bronze serpent, which is lifegiving and life-preserving for the Israelites, and is used in the gospel of John as a symbol of Jesus Christ: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so too must the Son of Man be lifted up.” That bronze serpent became a symbol of something else over time, so that when King Hezekiah cleansed the temple in the 8th century BCE, he destroyed the bronze serpent which had become an object of devotion (II Kings 18:4).

Symbols are powerful and they are often powerful, or become powerful in ways that we who use them can’t imagine or expect. It’s easy in Lent, and especially as we move closer to Holy Week, to focus our attention on the cross. It is a symbol of our faith, a symbol of Jesus’ Christ’s suffering, but it can often allow us to ignore other aspects of our faith, other possible symbols, or the ways in which a symbol like the cross, can become embedded in a whole culture or web of meanings that we don’t intend. It sometimes seems like Lent and especially Holy Week, become a time when we worship the cross. I thought of that this afternoon as I began planning our Good Friday service, which includes the veneration of the cross.

The cross is not just about my (our sins), Jesus’ suffering, and the doctrine of the atonement. It is also about Roman power, and God’s love, or in the words of the collect:

You stretched out your arms in love on the hard wood of the cross, that everyone might come within reach of your saving embrace

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