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

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)