Good Christian Expectations
What do you suppose it took the people in the wilderness, after their sin and God’s punishment sending deadly serpents among them, to convince them to look up to the bronze serpent on a standard and live? How did Moses get the message across of God’s mercy in their need? We sometimes claim that we have gotten beyond the scandal of the Cross, which troubled Jews and Gentiles alike in St. Paul’s time. Have we done so or does that unwillingness to embrace the Cross and Christ’s victory on Calvary continue to plague us even today?
Lots of thoughts could pass through one’s head on this feast day, but I’d like to concretize my reflection by marveling a bit at an exchange I had on the phone this morning with a very pious woman. After sharing with me the details of a recent brush with death and asking prayers for an upcoming surgery, she confided that she had issued the Lord an ultimatum claiming finally again for herself some good health and a more active social life, after months of hospital and home confinement, physical therapy and what not.
People talk this way. While it is certainly comprehensible, just as God’s people did in the wilderness is not our losing patience in the midst of hardship also wrong? Is it not punishable as it was in the case of the people who spoke against God and against Moses, wishing to have back their old life in Egypt? Do we not avert our eyes from His Cross and suffering to our own peril? Doesn’t bending the knee at the name of Jesus bring us face to face with Jesus lifted up on the Cross? Can we refuse Him company? Can we reject a non-negotiable share in His suffering?
On Good Friday we sing “Sweet the Wood and Sweet the Nails”. Are they so only for Him or also for us as we enter into His Passion and Death? Wherein is to be found the Triumph of the Holy Cross for me in poverty or pain, in sickness, in suffering and in death?
How indeed did Moses convince that first person bitten by the seraph serpent to look up at the bronze serpent and live? Did it take only Moses’ word and one obedient person saved to convince all others to turn to the bronze serpent and live? What does it mean to believe in Jesus lifted up for our salvation like that bronze serpent in the wilderness? Wherein lies the triumph of the Cross for me in my life?
The issue is not one of simply admonishing folk not to complain amidst hardship. The call or challenge is to leave old Egypt behind with no regrets and without complaint, fixing our gaze on the new Moses, Jesus, who mounts the standard Himself and leads us not to a momentary reprieve from physical suffering and death but leads us into His Kingdom and everlasting life. It’s a matter of recognizing as an act of hope looking upon the One pierced for our offenses.
I would never condemn anyone for seeking a respite. The problem arises when hoping for the respite is all that seems to matter, when getting back to Egypt (contrary to God’s plan for us) becomes primary.
The Cross is no less scandalous than it was in St. Paul’s time. Even among the people, God’s people, the baptized, there are those who would avert their gaze from the One Who has claimed His victory for the Father by being handed over, lifted up and pierced through upon the Cross.
Yet he who is full of compassion
Forgave their sin and spared them.
So often he held back his anger
When he might have stirred up his rage. (Ps. 77)Forgive, Lord! Forgive!