Seasoned practitioners of many spiritual traditions have come to understand a basic premise. In moments of profound crisis, the ordeal afflicting our spirit often contains, hidden inside it, a truth we need. We need to encounter, to acknowledge, and finally to reckon with this truth, in order to be healed.
Somehow, the poison contains the medicine.
The corresponding question then becomes:
How do we extract the medicine and live to tell the tale?
In this short story from the book Numbers, Moses uses what anthropologists would call sympathetic or imitative magic. Traditional societies often use an object representing a common threat or affliction – in this case, the mysterious, powerful viper – to heal the affliction caused by the thing itself. Encounters with desert-dwelling snakes would have been frequent in the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites. Moses’ response in the text suggests an imitative logic: fight fire with fire. Subdue the literal burning of snake venom in the flesh with an image of a snake cast from burning, molten metal. This is underscored by the word-magic of the Hebrew: the word for snake, nehash, sounds evocatively like the word for bronze, nehoshet.
The story of the Raising of Lazarus is one of the great miracles, the signs in the Gospel of John. It is a wonderful story, but unlike the other signs, it seems to have a shadow cast over it. For, in full tragic irony, Jesus giving life to Lazarus results directly in the decision to put Jesus to death. The shadow cast over the story is the shadow of the Cross.
For immediately after Jesus has raised Lazarus, we read: ‘Some of those who had come with Mary went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done.’ And the Pharisees were filled with fear. At once, they and the chief priests called a meeting of the council and said, ‘What are we going to do?’ the council was no less than the Sanhedrin – the highest Jewish court and governing body. That’s how serious the threat of this man Jesus was to them. The meeting was highly charged, and the most powerful emotion was fear. ‘What are we going to do?’, said one. ‘We can’t let him carry on like this’, said another. ‘Everyone will believe in him, and then what? The Romans will come and destroy our Temple and our whole nation.’ Next, Caiaphas the high priest joined in: ‘You know nothing at all.’ In Greek it is stronger, rather like, ‘You are talking rubbish!’ The tension was rising. Fear was everywhere. They all felt it. And what they feared most from Jesus is what they thought they would lose. If this man was allowed to carry on they would lose everything; their status, their position in society, their power – everything. They risked losing their very selves.
The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
“Behold what you are; may we become what we receive.” With every declaration of that Eucharistic proclamation the aperture of my heart’s perception begins, O so slowly, to dilate, straining for clearer focus on the One who calls me “guest” at his gracious table. It is an invitation like nothing I have ever heard from the Altar, and it awakens a peculiar zeal for Christ’s kingdom promises.
As I went to the polls yesterday afternoon, and as I spent time with this passage in the days before—with Paul’s frustrated words of encouragement to his flock in Corinth—this Eucharistic proclamation returned to me over and over—not as an invitation, but as a dire summons: BEHOLD WHAT YOU ARE; what you really are. Paul will frequently summon us to behold what we are, especially when the dangerous spark of zeal is ignited within us; and he summons us this way, I think, to ask us what it really at the center of our heart’s aperture, without illusion or self-deception. Are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?
For several years after college I worked for an international development and relief organization. We provided medical supplies and expatriate staff for hospitals in 80 or so of the economically-poorest countries of the world. My work was in personnel, which included preparing and orienting our medical workers for what they would encounter in their host culture. We always told them in great detail the worst they would likely experience: the extremes of the weather, the meager diet, the primitive sanitary conditions, the political tensions with the host government, the competition among various religious and political groups in their area, the lack of privacy, the prospect of their becoming sick, the homesickness and loneliness they would feel, the possible strains on their family, the desperate need for their work… and the haunting guilt they would probably feel being such privileged people in the face of such great poverty.
On this Holy Innocents Day, my mind goes back to Salisbury Cathedral where I was ordained. The cathedral is twinned with Chartres Cathedral, and the year after my ordination a huge new East window was put into Salisbury – an incredibly beautiful and powerful window, made in Chartres at the famous workshop of Gabriel Loire – and incorporating that marvelous blue so characteristic of Chartres. The window is called “Prisoners of conscience” and it was dedicated by Yehudi Menuhin, who had worked so tirelessly for Amnesty International.
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.