I have a pretty good sense of direction, but I still get turned around sometimes. GPS on a phone or in the car, can be a great thing, but for me—nothing beats a visual landmark. When I can’t see anything familiar, make a few wrong turns, or walk a few blocks out of the way. But finally I see it: the Washington Monument. Then I can figure out my direction and make my way onward.
Some of us need and appreciate visual landmarks to help us stay on course—physically and sometimes spiritually. In part, that’s what our first reading is remind us today. It’s about the power and importance of visual landmark, a symbol that can give hope and healing.
Admittedly, in the Book of Numbers, we hear a strange story. We could get sidetracked on whether God actually “sent” the snakes, or why God might allow such suffering to happen, but for now, let’s just agree that it’s an old, old story that was probably shared orally for generations before it was finally written down.
At the beginning of this story, the people of Israel are “murmuring.” They’re impatient, restless, and whiney. They miss what was familiar back in Egypt—even though they had been enslaved, there had been a certain predictability about it all. But now, look where God has brought them! There isn’t much food or water at all, and when there is, it’s awful. And then when things are bad, they get worse, and there are snakes.
The snakes bite the people, and many of them die. And so everyone prays to God, asking God to forgive their murmuring, their whining, and their lack of faith. God hears them, and then God gives them a symbol of healing.
Notice what God does. 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. And when the people look up at this image, they are healed.
The image of the serpent reminds the people of danger and death (all a part of human experience), but the image also works as a testimony of God’s protection, of God’s promise to deliver them, and save them—always. It is this image of death that is converted to life (that for Christians who read this story) foreshadows the salvation we have through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Death is raised up. The one who died has risen again.
In the image of the cross, one still sees traces of suffering, pain, danger and death. But on the other side of Easter morning, there’s also healing. There is resurrection. There is new life forever. The very thing that hurt now is the means for helping.
The cross can’t be explained scientifically (at least, not yet). It can’t even be explained very clearly through theology, though theologies of the atonement abound. But the cross is understood (if one can use that word), the cross is known, 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 illness or surgery—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, it’s God who is behind that power. It is God who is the energy changing pain into power.
Sometimes we use words to share pain, but at other times, our presence is enough. Sometimes our presence (with no words) is even better. 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…. 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.
Over the last few months, I’ve been looking at a lot of crosses—crosses on buildings and crosses that people wear. One that has caught my attention recently is the cross worn by Pope Francis. Many of you are familiar with a bishop’s “pectoral cross,” (“pectoral,” meaning “on the chest”). It’s usually a large cross, often made of silver, gold, or platinum, and sometimes it has jewels or decorations. Often, a new cross is made when a bishop is consecrated, and especially a new, special cross is made when there’s a new pope. But Pope Francis didn’t want a new cross. He uses his old one, the one he has worn since being Archbishop of Buenos Aires. It’s made of simple silver and it has an image on it of Christ the Good Shepherd, leading the flock and carrying the sheep on his shoulders. I imagine Pope Francis uses that cross as a landmark, a guide, a symbol to help him get his bearings straight whenever he might get distracted or confused or even a little bit lost. The pope can look at that cross and remember that no matter what, Christ is the Good Shepherd. Though the weight may feel heavy sometimes, Christ is carrying him, too; as well as all the hurts of the world.
The Gospel two weeks ago reminded us that faithful following of Jesus includes taking up our cross and following him. But in many ways the one cross that really matters is the one that Christ has already taken up. As we heard in the Letter to the Ephesians, “By grace we have been saved through faith, and this is not our own doing; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8) The image of the cross—whether we see it on a wall, hold it our hand, or wear it on our body—continues to be a symbol that can center us when we’re off course. We look at it and get our bearings. With St. Clare, we can look into the cross as a mirror and see our truest and best self, reflected in Christ.
In these final days of Lent, do you have a cross that centers you? Is there a particular cross that guides you and gets you back on course? If not, I encourage you to discover one. If so, I encourage you to hold on to it and give thanks. “The Son of Man is lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.