Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Tuesday in the 5th Week of Lent
It Matters Where You Look

Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 102:2-3, 16-18, 19-21; John 8:21-30

There is a principle that has long guided the Church’s interpretation of scripture but which has sometimes been neglected in more modern approaches. The principle goes: the New Testament is hidden in the Old, the Old is made manifest in the New (Novum Testamentum in Vetere latet, Vetus in Novo patet). Our Mass readings today provide us with an especially good occasion to see this principle in action.

The first reading presents us with a highly curious, even strange, incident in the experience of the Israelites journeying through the desert. They are suffering. God has freed them from slavery in Egypt and led them into the desert, where they suffer hunger and thirst. And because they complain, their suffering is aggravated. They are killed off by fiery serpents. In desperation they cry out to God through Moses and God responds in a highly curious fashion. Instead of removing the serpents or killing them, God effects healing by making those who have been bitten gaze at a raised up symbol of the very thing which they fear, that which has brought them pain and suffering. This is not what one would expect. This is not how one naturally reacts to suffering. As the experts tell us, the usual first reaction is denial. Try to look on the bright side. Think happy thoughts. Go to a happy place. How to understand what God is doing?

The Old Testament is made manifest in the New

In the Gospel, Jesus refers to himself as the One who will be raised up: when you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He… And here we begin to see the significance of the bronze serpent. We begin to understand God’s chosen response to the sufferings in the world and in our lives. In a shocking way, God chooses to submit to the suffering, to be raised up on an instrument of torture and death, so as to become a channel of healing and life to all. Here too we learn the proper Christian response to suffering. Instead of looking away, instead of seeking an escape route, instead of distracting oneself through the power of positive thinking, one gazes into the darkness and cries out as the psalmist does: O Lord, listen to my prayer and let my cry for help reach you. And just as God answered the prayer of Moses in the desert, the one who prays in this way experiences a new vision, a vision of the Crucified One and all that He represents: God’s undying love for us even to the point of death and beyond. And the power of that vision is such that one might even be led from mourning to mission. One might be led to ask the questions that St. Ignatius of Loyola recommends to retreatants as they gaze upon Christ on the Cross: what have I done for Christ, what am I doing for Christ, what ought I to do for Christ

Isn’t this what we’re about especially in this great season of Lent? We are preparing for Easter not by avoiding the dark reality of sin and death, but by gazing long and hard at it and allowing it to be enlightened by the mind-boggling symbol of Christ’s Cross. In this way, we hope to be led from darkness to light, from death to life, from pain to the fullness of joy.

But first we must look and we must pray…

When you encounter suffering, what do you do? Where do you look?

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