The San Damiano Cross of St. Francis
A sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 18, 2012. The lectionary readings are
Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, and John 3:14-21.
If you were anywhere in Washington yesterday or last night, then you know that yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day. People wore shamrocks, fountains and rivers flowed green, and legends were told again about Patrick, the 5th
century bishop and missionary. One of the most popular stories has to do with St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland. And though it was long before St. Patrick, the people of Israel in our first reading could have really used someone like Patrick because they had a serious snake problem.
This reading from the Book of Numbers is a strange old story. It’s one of a number of Old Testament passages in which the people of Israel are “murmuring.” They are impatient, restless, and whiney. They’re complaining against God and against God’s leader in their midst, Moses. They miss what was familiar back in Egypt—even though they had been enslaved, there had been a certain predictability about it all. And now, there isn’t much food or water at all, and when there is, the food is dreadful. But then it gets worse.
There are poisonous snakes. The snakes bite the people, and many of them die. And so the people pray to God, and ask God to forgive their murmuring, their whining and their lack of faith. God hears them, and then God gives them a symbol of healing. God uses the very thing that has hurt them, and God turns that hurtful thing into a symbol of healing. This new, strange but powerful symbol is of a serpent raised up high on a pole. When the people look up at this image, they are healed.
In some ways this story has in it a kind of symbolic vaccination, like in modern vaccinations, when a little part of a disease is put into us. When things go correctly, our body’s immune system fights the intruder and we become protected from the illness.
In the Old Testament lesson, the image of the serpent reminds the people of the danger and death involved, but also of God’s protection, of God’s promise to deliver them, and save them. It is this image of death that is converted to life, that foreshadows the salvation we have through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.
In the image of the cross, there is suffering, pain, danger and death. But on the other side of Easter morning, healing. There is resurrection. There is new life for ever. The very thing that has hurt provides the means for helping.
The fancy, theological word for what happens on the cross is Atonement. The word implies that Jesus’s action on the cross is some way atones, or makes up for, or is the cure for, our sin. Some have defined Atonement as “at-one-ment” with Christ—it all comes from the idea of being at-one, of being reconciled, of being brought into harmony and friendship with God through Jesus Christ.
The cross can’t be explained scientifically (at least, not yet). It can’t even be explained very clearly through theology. But the cross is understood (if one can use that word) by experience. What happens on the cross is a mystery that must be explored, experienced and approached through faith.
While I don’t pretend to understand the full power of the cross, one thing I do understand is that part of the mystery of the cross involves God turning pain into power. God uses wounds to bring about healing.
We experience this whenever people gather with others who have suffered as they have. When we meet others who share the same wounds—whether that be an addiction, some experience of violence, or any other common hurt—we can begin to find healing the experience of being with each other, of hearing others’ stories, of sharing others’ strength. If you’ve ever been a part of such a group you’ll know that while the individuals differ and may not agree on anything else, the common suffering can create a kind of energy, a kind of power, and a kind of strength. Whether one calls it a higher power or something else, I believe that it’s God who is behind that power. It is God who is behind the conversion of pain into power.
We experience healing through the combined experience of pain, but we also come to understand it in ourselves sometimes. When we are able to be honest, to be vulnerable, again— we begin to move toward healing and toward being what Henri Nouwen called a “wounded healer.” Nouwen writes beautifully about listening to another who is undergoing a painful experience. He cautions against rushing in to compare pain, or to say, “Yes, I know just what you mean.” He writes
To enter into solidarity with a suffering person does not mean that we have to talk with that person about our own suffering. Speaking about our own pain is seldom helpful for someone who is in pain. A wounded healer is someone who can listen to a person in pain without having to speak about his or her own wounds. When we have lived through a painful depression, we can listen with great attentiveness and love to a depressed friend without mentioning our experience. Mostly it is better not to direct a suffering person’s attention to ourselves. We have to trust that our own bandaged wounds will allow us to listen to others with our whole beings. That is healing.” The Wounded Healer, 1979
Jesus experienced the pain of death, before he experienced the joy of resurrection. Good Friday comes before Easter. But Jesus knew that as he lived and preached, as he touched other people’s pain and suffering, he knew they would feel God’s presence with them. And he knew that in his willingness to get into other people’s pain, this was simply practice– practice for healing of all suffering and illness, the healing that comes with eternal life.
When the people of Israel were making their way through the desert, they were healed when they looked up at the serpent on the pole. As Christians, we can find healing when we look up at the cross of our crucified Lord.
There are many images of the cross for our gazing, but one of my favorites is the San Damiano Cross, often called the cross of St. Francis. Tradition says that when Francis heard God’s initial call, he was looking at a particular crucifix in the church of San Damiano. I love this particular cross because it neither ignores the suffering of Jesus, nor glorifies that suffering. On the St. Francis cross, Jesus is not alone. He is surrounded by all kinds of people. The crucifix is a kind of icon, including the friends of Jesus and even outsiders. It includes Mary and John the Baptist, but it also includes Peter and John running from the empty tomb on Easter Day. There are angels and patriarchs. There are saints.
The great thing about the St. Francis cross is that there is also room for you and me. The cross of Saint Francis reminds us that even in our darkest times, we are never alone, just as, even on the cross, Jesus was never totally alone. The cross reminds us of many things, but among them it reminds us of God’s power, God’s intention, and God’s promise of healing and resurrection.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.