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Strange Medicine and the Gaze that Saves: A Meditation on the Triumph of the Cross

September 14, 2010

One of the stranger passages in the Old Testament is a command Moses received from God. The people had grumbled against God and Moses for the “wretched” manna they had to consume (Numbers 21:5). They were sick of its bland quality though it was the miracle food, the bread from heaven that had sustained them in the desert. (Pay attention Catholics who treat lightly or find  the Eucharist boring!) God grew angry and sent venomous snakes among them which caused many to die (Nm 21:6). The people then repented and, in order to bring healing to them, God command a strange and remarkable thing: Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live(Nm 21:8).

No Graven Images?? Now remember it was God who had said earlier in the Ten Commandments Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth(Ex 20:4). Yet here he commands a graven (a carved) image. Moses made it of bronze and showed it to the people who looking at it became well (Nm 21:9)

In a way it is almost as if God were saying to Moses, “The people, in rejecting the Bread from Heaven have chosen Satan and what he offers. They have rejected me. Let them look into the depth of their sin and face their choice and the fears it has set loose. Let them look upon a serpent. Having looked, let them repent and be healed, let the fear of what the serpent can do depart.”

 Jesus takes up the theme in today’s Gospel and fulfills it when he says, And 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 (John 3:14). Almost as if to say, “Let the people face their sin and see the ugly reality that it is and what it does to me to them and others. Let them face their choice and seek healing repentance. Let them also see the outstretched arms of God’s mercy and find peace.”

There is something about facing our sins, our short-comings and our anxieties and fears. There is something about looking into the face of them in order to find healing.  One of the glories of the Catholic Faith is that we have never hid the cross. We have never run from it. There have been brief times when we shamefully de-emphasized it. But throughout most all of our history, the crucifix has been prominently, proudly and fearlessly displayed in our churches. We cling to and glory in it.

Do you know how shocking this is? Imagine, instead of a crucifix in our Churches, you were to walk in and see Jesus dangling from a gallows, a rope around his neck. Crucifixion was the form of execution reserved for the worst of criminals. It was shocking, horrifying and emblematic of the worse kind of sufferings. When the Romans saw or thought of something awful they would cry out in Latin: “Ex cruce!” (From the cross!) for they could think of nothing more horrible to compare it to. And this is where we get our English word, “excruciating.”  Crucifixion is brutal and awful, a slow, ignoble and humiliating death: ex cruce!

 But there it is, front and center in  just about every Catholic Church. There it is, at the head of our processions. There it is, displayed in our homes. And we are bid to look upon it daily. Displayed there is everything we most fear: suffering, torment, loss, humiliation, nakedness, hatred, scorn, mockery,  ridicule, rejection, and death. And the Lord and the Church say: “Look! Don’t turn away. Do not hide this. Look! Behold! Face the crucifix and all it means. Stare into the face of your worst fears, confront them and begin to experience healing. Do not fear the worst the world and the devil can do for Christ has triumphed overwhelmingly. He has cast off death like a garment  and said to us, In this world ye shall have tribulation. But have courage! I have overcome the world(Jn 16:33).

 And therein lies the key that the cross is. It is the antidote to the world. It is the world and our roots in it that cause us the greatest fear. Have you ever noticed that the more you have, the more you fear? The more we have to lose, the more we have to fear. But through the Cross, and the sufferings of this world we begin to discover how hollow and foreign this world  really is. We begin to experience that this world is a valley of tears and an exile from our true homeland. It loses its savor and so we begin to focus more on our heart’s truest longing which is God and the things waiting for us in heaven. St. Paul wrote: May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Gal 6:14).

And herein lies the Victory of the Cross – The cross crucifies the world to me and I to the world. The cross breaks the bond, severs the unholy relationship and sets me free. The cross has a way of helping us to see the truer reality of things and the world begins to lose its hold. It is a strange and hard medicine, but there is a power in the cross and remedy for our soul. Sorrow suffering bring detachment, and detachment brings peace and freedom. And this is victory of the cross, victory over the world.

Illustration-  St. John Chrysostom had suffered much from the world, frequent exiles and threats for emperors, heretical clergy and the like. Popularity was mixed with hatred from the powers and princes of this world. But he had faced the cross and accepted it. And now, threatened once again with exile, he mounted his pulpit in Constantinople and laughed at the threats before him. He declared his freedom from fear at anything this world could dish out. In so doing he declared and illustrates the triumph of the cross. I close with his words. Listen to a man who has been set free and experienced the Triumph of the Cross:

What are we to fear? Death? Life to me means Christ, and death is gain. Exile? ‘The earth and its fullness belong to the Lord. The confiscation of goods? We brought nothing into this world, and we shall surely take nothing from it. I have only contempt for the world’s threats, I find its blessings laughable. I have no fear of poverty, no desire for wealth. I am not afraid of death nor do I long to live, except for your good….I urge you, my friends, to have confidence…. (ante exsilium n. 1: PG 52, 427)

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  1. Daniel says:

    Wonderful insight. I remember hearing a story from a Muslim friend about a young Muslim boy who went into a Catholic Church for the first time and ran crying to his father because of the horrifying sight of a naked bloody dead man at the front of the Church. I think it can be easy to become used to the sight and no longer be affected by it when it becomes overly stylized, or reduced simply to a piece of jewelry or decoration.
    I think many Catholics are being disappointed about how the tendency to avoid looking at painful truth became evident even among the hierarchy with the deception and shifting of blame in the abuse scandals. We are all human and in need of salvation–the ontological change at ordination clearly does not remove this– and the cross is a powerful reminder of God’s universal love. The process of reconciliation will be difficult and require an honest gaze at the snake on the pole, but it will ultimately bring us closer to God’s healing.

  2. Celio says:

    Fr. Pope, I think today I saw the cross in the form of Stephen Fry. A video of a debate on the BBC about whether the Catholic Church is a force of Good started making it’s rounds on the internet and I have to say that the guys on our team did quite poorly. The argument presented by the against side won 80% of the audience in the end. I think it was important to see it, because it made me look up the transcripts for the entire debate, not just Stephen Fry’s eloquent speech featured in the video.

    He brought up issues that are trying our Church today, the abuse scandal, our stance against contraception in the fight on AIDS/HIV and the old classics, from ST. Thomas Moore burning and torturing people for reading or owning a Bible in English to Galileo and the rejection of the homosexual lifestyle and the inordination (is that even a real word in this case?) of women to the priesthood.

    Our side, an Archbishop and a well known British MP who converted in the 90’s were defeated in the debate.
    Here’s a link to the transcript if I may post it (²-catholic-church-debate-transcript/).

    I listen to your sermons online as soon as they are available and to the EWTN show Threshold of Hope and so many of the questions I had have been answered in your sermons and on the TOH show. I now own my own copy of the Catechism and my own Bible and while there aren’t any Bible study groups where I live, and no hope for one anytime soon, I find the Word to be enriching my life, even if things don’t usually go the way I’d like.

    Anyway, I’m digressing a bit, my point is, after watching the video and reading the full transcripts I saw the Cross in its full shock and horror, and I also saw how it actually took away people from our side (details in the transcript) over to believe that the Catholic Church is NOT a force for Good in the world.

    Anyway, thank you for letting me post this comment, I eagerly await your next sermon!


  3. Vijaya says:

    I never did understand that business of the serpent in Numbers but I am beginning to. But the cross. It is terrible to know we killed our God … and yet, it was the only way, wasn’t it? The perfect offering. He loved us so much, he went to the cross willingly to save us.

    Our parish priest is very talented and has carved a beautiful and sad corpus and I love to gaze upon it.

    • Cynthia BC says:

      Having listened to numerous complaints from my daughter about the food set before her, I totally get why God sent out the serpents among the Israealites!

  4. Pat says:

    I truly found this a wonderful commentary. I shall certainly bring up the points you make to my class and one of our Altar servers who carries the cross during the procession. It also gives a deeper insight when I look at the crucifix (I have many in my home). I have heard and read similar observations as you have written but it never hurts to review and consider them again.
    Thank you for the refresher.

  5. Grandpa Tom says:

    Apostle Andrew was nailed to an X or diagonal shaped cross. According to Pope Benedict’s book “The Apostles,” during the Passion of Andrew, he is claimed to have said (Chptr. Six p. 63-64):

    Hail, O Cross, inaugurated by the Body of Christ and adorned with his limbs as though they were precious pearls. Before the lord mounted you, you inspired an earthly fear. Now instead with heavenly love, you are accepted as a gift.
    Believers know of the great joy that you possess, and of the multitude of gifts you have prepared. I come to you, therefore, confident and joyful, so that you too may receive me exultant as a disciple of the One who hung upon you…O Blessed Cross, clothed in the majesty and beauty of the Lord’s limbs!…Take me, carry me far from men, and restore me to my Teacher, so that, through you, the one who redeemed me by you, may receive me. Hail, O Cross; yes, hail indeed!

  6. bt says:

    “And this is where we get our English word, “excruciating.” Crucifixion is brutal and awful, a slow, ignoble and humiliating death: ex cruce!”

    Thank you for another informing column.

  7. CastingCrown says:

    For a moment there I thought you had misquoted St. John Chrysostom since this exhortation is almost identical to the response of St. Basil when threatened with punishment by a member of Emperor Valen’s court:

    “You threaten me with the confiscation of property, but it means nothing for the man who possesses nothing, unless you desire to receive this modest clothing and a few books which make up all my estate. Exile? – but I do not know it, since I am not limited by space. If this ground on which I stand right now does not belong to me, then the whole earth belongs to God, Whose temporary guest I am. Tortures? – but they do not have power…, except perhaps for the first blow, which you are free to make. Death? – but it will be deliverance for me, since it will quickly bring me to God, for Whom I live and to a greater extent have died, and to Whom I hasten to come…”

    …but I was wrong – you were quite right St. John Chrysostom said something very similar. But doesn’t this beautifully underscore the common life witness of the Early Church? 🙂

    “Had there been no cross, Christ could not have been crucified. Had there been no cross, life itself could not have been nailed to the tree. And if life had not been nailed to it, There would be no streams of immortality pouring from Christ’s side, blood and water for the world’s cleansing. The legal bond of our sin would not be cancelled, we should not have attained our freedom, we should not have enjoyed the fruit of the tree of life and the gates of paradise would not stand open. Had there been no cross, death would not have been trodden underfoot, nor hell despoiled.” – St. Andrew of Crete

    Cling to the Cross!

  8. Grandpa Tom says:

    The bronze saraph which Moses mounted on a pole (Nm 21:6) which healed those that had been bitten by a serpent when they looked at it, is todays Symbol of the Medical profession. The doctors and nurses use this symbol with the serpent which is taken from the Book of Numbers. The healing serpent can make itself new skin, and gets rid of the old skin. This is similiar to our baptism when we too get rid of the old skin of sin, and renew our life with new skin. The new Adam, who is Jesus Christ, said; I make all things new.

  9. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    You couldn’t have said it any better. A very wonderful article. Amen.

  10. esiul says:

    The video says it all!

  11. Mary Nyiha says:

    I love reading each of your articles Fr. they r inspiring. thanks 4 enlightening me on waht it meant to look at the serpent in the old testament. May our Lord bless and protect you. Amen!

  12. Brad says:

    I love the Numbers/John parallel. As an adult convert, Christ as the bronze serpent has always had deep meaning for me. I don’t know if a cradle Catholic can feel the same. As an adult, when one makes the decision, through grace, to drag oneself out of the gutter of modern, worldly life, satan’s domain, toward Christ on the hilltop cross, one feels one’s hands and knees get pretty torn up, but one looks to Christ in the same way an absolutely desperate sailor would look to a lighthouse. When one gets fairly close to Calvary’s summit and is allowed to stop, the sense of victory is so great, and the sense of backsliding so horrifying and so near, that one keeps one’s eyes fixed on Him as bronze serpent, with literally every breath!

    • Lizzy S Falnikar says:

      Dear Brad,

      Well said!!! If you ask me, a craddle Catholic myself, at most times I draw strength from a new convert like you, so that I maY not backslide myself. I become so very lukewarm at times, losing all that my own baptism gave me. But when I look at the new catechumens of the RCIA, I start running towards my goal ( Jesus) with renewed vigour and zeal. And as I always tell the Lord myself, if he had to come and feel the warmth for Him in my heart vis-a-vis a young convert’s heart, he will find the latter warmer. We backslide so easily, Brad. But good for you. You keep your eyes on Calvary and Jesus will keep his eyes fixed on you.

  13. Theresa says:

    Monsignor Pope,

    I often read your posts through NewAdvent, and always post them to Facebook afterward because I find them to be wonderful. This reflection is, by far, the best one I’ve read yet. I will be posting it, e-mailing it, and printing it so that I can meditate upon it again.

    Thank you and may God bless you,