'For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish, but may have eternal life.' - John 3:16

Early Christians wouldn't have understood our practice of displaying crucifixes depicting a suffering Jesus. It wasn't that they didn't believe Jesus suffered and died for us; when they wanted to create a symbol which conveyed the meaning of that unique event, putting a suffering-Jesus on a cross didn't really do it.

During the first four or five centuries of Christianity, a "crux gemmata," not a suffering Jesus cross, was the norm. They couldn't come up with a better way to express their belief in Jesus' death and resurrection.

One need only Google the fifth- and sixth-century churches of Ravenna, Italy, to find multiple examples of this kind of crucifix. In its most common form, a crux gemmata has the shape of the traditional cross, but instead of a suffering Jesus, the cross is covered with jewels.

The cross is an obvious symbol of Jesus' suffering and death; the jewels convey our faith in His resurrection. The perfect Christian symbol, a crux gemmata is an outward sign of our belief that, by dying with Jesus, we rise with Jesus.

Years ago, when I showed some grade school students an example of a crux gemmata, a little girl raised her hand and blurted out, "That's a happy cross!" It's against this background that we must hear Sunday's three readings.

Lifted up
The irony of Yahweh's command to Moses in the first reading (Numbers 21:4b-9) to "make a seraph and mount it on a pole" and have the stricken people "look at it" revolves around the fact that such seraph snakes are actually killing the Chosen People. Contrary to popular wisdom, in this situation focusing on the instrument of death brings life, not death.

The first followers of Jesus could certainly testify to this reality. The very thing which brought death to Jesus also brought Him life. John's Jesus (John 3:13-17), in instructing Nicodemus on what it means to be "reborn," refers back to this Numbers passage.

He employs one of His double- and triple-meaning phrases, "lifted up," to convey His meaning: "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."

"Lifted up" can have three meanings: simply to be raised up above others; to be exalted above others; or, in an ancient Middle East context, referring to crucifixion: He or she was lifted up on a cross.

Which meaning does John expect us to take away? All of them! When Jesus is lifted up on Golgotha on Good Friday, He's literally put above others, an action which will cause His death. But it's also an action which brings about His exalted new life, the life He now shares with all His imitators.

Going down
The essential question for those who carry on Jesus' ministry is, "How are we to carry on His dying and rising?" Only the most radical would encourage someone to actually be physically crucified.

Paul (Philippians 2:6-11) supplies the answer - but he reverses John's "lifted up" image. For the Apostle, Jesus' road to divinity revolved around "going down," not going up. "He emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave." He became one with those whom people in His day and age regarded as expendable - a real death even in our own day and age.

Women can testify how difficult it is to identify with men and vice versa. Straight people can find it rough to put themselves in the place of people who are gay and vice versa. In the midst of this, it's essential to know that one way Jesus found life was to become one with all of us.

Maybe it would help if we lobbied for more crux gemmatas in our churches.