by Father Mike Stubbs
o puns make you wince?
Then get ready, because this Sunday’s Gospel reading — Jn 3:14-21 — revolves around a pun.
In it, Jesus tells 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.”
These words look forward to Jesus’ crucifixion, when his body will be physically lifted up and attached to the cross. That explains the comparison to the bronze serpent being lifted up on the pole.
But there is another meaning. Because of this sacrifice, Jesus will be glorified and exalted. In that respect, his name and prestige will be lifted up among all.
It is no accident that the church observes the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on Sept. 14. It is a feast that celebrates this dual aspect of Jesus’ sacrifice: its physicality and its life-giving quality.
John’s Gospel appears to favor word play. Later on, when it describes Jesus’ death, it states: “He handed over the spirit” (Jn 19:30b). Once again, these words have a double meaning.
On one hand, they can simply point to the fact that Jesus expired. On the other hand, they can mean that Jesus handed over to his disciples his spirit — that is to say, the Holy Spirit.
These puns and word play fit in with the general approach of John’s Gospel. It presents a narrative that we can take at face value. At the same time, we often can dig deeper and find still another meaning. That is why John calls the miracles of Jesus, “signs.” They point to a deeper reality.
John’s Gospel encourages us to look more closely. It wants us to see all that is there. That is why the light plays such an important role in the Gospel. The word “light” occurs 18 times.
Compare that to Mark’s Gospel, where it appears only once. It consistently refers, not to the physical phenomenon but, rather, to spiritual enlightenment, revelation.
Light enables us to see. And the Gospel reading tells us: “Whoever lives the truth comes to the light.” What is the light? In John’s Gospel, Jesus proclaims, “I am the light of the world” (Jn 8:12).
Jesus wants us to see God’s love for us. As the Gospel reading also relates: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”