As Jesus neared the end of his public ministry, he made a prediction about his coming passion and death.
“When I am lifted up from the earth,” he said, “I will draw everyone to myself” (John 12:32). These words, which are so full of promise and hope, show us that Jesus didn’t come just to forgive our sins. He also came to bring us into a relationship with him. He came so that we could be “drawn” to him and “lifted up” with him to the presence of his heavenly Father.
This month, we want to take a look at what it means to be lifted up with Jesus. What happens when we are lifted up? What does it mean for us to lift up our own hearts to the Lord? As we examine these questions, we will discover that when God raises us up, he does so by giving us a taste of his own life and love. We will also discover how these experiences can bring about real and lasting change in our lives.
The Promise of “Divinization.” The first question we need to ask is what are we being lifted up from, and where are we being lifted up to? The simple answer is that God lifts us from earth to heaven. But we have to be careful here. We are not implying that everything in this world is evil and that God wants to separate us from the world. On the contrary, he lifts us up to heaven so that, filled with his grace, we can be a more effective force for good and holiness on the earth.
When we say that God lifts us up from the earth, we are really saying that he takes us out of the limited philosophies that are prevalent in the world. He lifts us out of our narrow self-focused concerns and gives us a sense of his grandeur, his power, and his love. He raises us above our limited expectations for our lives and shows us that we really can overcome sin and that we really can live holy, godly lives in this world.
Over time, as we experience God lifting us up more and more frequently, we find ourselves changing. We find the Holy Spirit making us more like Jesus. We find him delivering us from old ways of sin and limited vision so that we can live in closer union with the Lord. Some of the saints have gone so far as to call this process of transformation “divinization,” where God forms us into his image and likeness so fully that we begin to think and act like Jesus.
This process begins at baptism, but it doesn’t happen automatically. We need to cooperate with the Spirit. God wants us to yield to him and his ways, and for that we need the right disposition, one of dependence on God. What does this dependence look like? Well, children and babies are dependent on their parents and other caregivers—but especially in the case of babies, they aren’t really aware of this, and so they don’t make any decisions to remain dependent.
On the other hand, adults know when they need the help of someone else. It may be in times of sickness or financial need. It may be as they age and become infirm. Or it may simply be the case of a man acknowledging that he needs the love of his wife because he does not want to be alone. All of these examples give us an indication of the way God wants us to come to him. He wants us to know that we need his grace. He wants us to confess that we need to be lifted up so that we won’t get dragged down to a completely worldly way of living.
Abraham’s Path. Let’s look at Abraham, one of the earliest figures in the Bible to have experienced God lifting him up and changing his life. When God first called him, Abraham was a wealthy but childless nomad living in Mesopotamia. Abraham didn’t feel needy at all. He was simply doing what he thought he should do with his life. But that all changed when God revealed himself and said: “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk… . I will make of you a great nation” (Genesis 12:1,2).
Whatever happened then between God and Abraham must have been significant. Abraham left and moved to Hebron. God was so pleased with this response that he made a promise to Abraham: “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so shall your descendants be” (Genesis 15:5). Now, if Abraham did not respond to the original encounter, do you think he would have heard this promise? Probably not.
When God wanted to confirm his promises, he simply asked Abraham to keep his covenant by setting himself apart for God and staying faithful to him (Genesis 17:9-14). Still, Abraham found it hard to believe that God would give him and his wife, Sarah, a child. He even laughed at the thought (17:17). But something in this encounter with God moved Abraham, and he decided to follow the path God had laid out for him, even though human logic told him that it was impossible. Sarah was no different. She too laughed at the prospect of conceiving a child—and when called to account for it by the Lord, she even lied (18:12-15).
Years later, when God told Abraham about his plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham felt comfortable enough with God to try to prevent such a catastrophe. With humility and persistence, Abraham interceded to the Lord and somehow altered God’s plan. His nephew, Lot, was permitted to escape unharmed (Genesis 18:17-–19:23).
Then came the time when God tested Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. Abraham must have been puzzled, for God had told him that it was through Isaac that all of his promises would be fulfilled (Genesis 21:12). How could he kill this son—whom he loved deeply—and still see the future unfold as God had promised? Despite the confusion and the heartache, Abraham made ready to obey. Seeing how faithful and trusting Abraham was, God intervened at the last minute and promised him: “Because you acted as you did in not withholding from me your beloved son, I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore; your descendants shall take possession of the gates of their enemies, and in your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing—all this because you obeyed my command” (22:16-18).
The Beginning of a Long Line. This is a remarkable story about a remarkable man who was led along a path of ever-increasing faith. Time after time, Abraham was lifted up and drawn closer to God. And each time, he grasped more clearly what God was doing—and that deepened his faith. Abraham’s entire life is an example to us of what happens when God works in a person’s heart—and when that person responds to God in faith, surrender, and trust.
We need to know that even when we question God as Abraham did, he still works with us. Even when we lie or commit some other sin, as Sarah did, he still reaches out to us. Even when we try to negotiate with God, as Abraham did for Lot, he hangs in there with us. Even when we laugh at God’s plans, he doesn’t abandon us. And when we finally entrust everything to God as Abraham did with Isaac, we find God faithful, and we find ourselves rewarded greatly.
Abraham stood at the beginning of a long line of patriarchs and matriarchs, prophets and prophetesses, kings and queens, as well as everyday people throughout the Hebrew Bible—heroes and heroines who were touched by God and lifted up to a new way of living. What’s more, with the coming of Christ and the gift of his Holy Spirit, this grace is no longer limited to just a chosen few. Countless saints of the church—both recognized and hidden—have been lifted up and transformed. From age to age, millions of believers have experienced God’s grace!
Lift Up Your Heart! The story of Abraham and Isaac can help us understand just how much God wants to lift us up. More than two thousand years after God spared Abraham’s only son, Isaac, he chose not to spare his only Son, Jesus—even after Jesus prayed that “this cup” would pass him by (Matthew 26:39). Surely God loved his Son even more deeply than Abraham loved Isaac. But he loved us so much—and so did his Son—that he freely gave him up for us. God’s willingness to sacrifice his only Son for us demonstrates the lengths to which he will go to save us, to teach us, and to lift us up to his side.
At every Mass, we are invited: “Lift up your hearts,” and we respond by saying, “We lift them up to the Lord.” What do you think would happen if each of us used this moment to actually do just that? What would the church look like if we all set our position at every Eucharist, saying, “Jesus, I want to be drawn closer to you. I don’t want anything to get in the way. Come, Lord, and lift all of us up so that we can know you better and love you more.”