14 September 2012

Is there a seraph serpent in your life?

Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

At the center of our faith, at the root of the Church stands an absurdity: the Cross. Used for centuries by the Romans to execute the scum of the Empire, the cross is an instrument of suffering and death. That we exalt such a bloody tool of oppression is peculiar. But what makes the cross truly absurd for us is that it is not only a gruesome torture device but it is also our only means of salvation. Much like a scalpel cuts the flesh to remove a tumor and exacts a price in blood to heal the patient, the Cross too exacts its price to save the sinner. For us, for all of God's creatures, that price was paid in full by the blood of Christ. We are healed free of charge, and so we gather this evening to honor the cross of our salvation and to give God thanks for His abundant mercy. Our Lord says, “. . .just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” We believe. And we lift him up, trusting in his promise of life eternal! 

God's people begin to gripe and moan in the desert, "Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this wretched food!” They've forgotten their lives in slavery under Pharaoh and they've forgotten that the Lord rescued them. He sends serpents among them. Many are bitten and many die. They repent and Moses intervenes on their behalf. God offers them healing through an image of the very thing He used to punish them: the serpent. When those who are bitten look at the image of the serpent, they are healed. Thus is set in the minds of God's people the memory that an instrument of punishment can also be a tool for redemption. And thus are we shown that pain, suffering, and death—so obviously useless to the world—can be a way back to God if we travel The Way with repentance in faith. We have been rescued by Christ from slavery to sin. And the way across the desert to perfection is long, hard, and dry; often w/o much nourishment; without much shelter; or a chance to rest. And we are all prone to some whining, a little “woe is me.” And when our complaining gets to be too shrill or too a bit too self-pitying, we might find the occasional seraph serpent waiting for us, ready to bite. A reminder that so long as we have something, anything to lose, we have yet to surrender wholly to God. 

Paul's magnificent hymn on the Incarnation in his letter to the Philippians is a catalog of all that the Son of God surrendered for us so that we might free of sin: “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, . . .he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” If God can love us so fully, so completely that He sends His only Son to pay the price for our salvation; and if His Son can love us so fully, so completely that he willingly empties himself out, makes himself obedient to the laws of death and dying, and then dies on the cross for us, then can we—the sole beneficiaries of his death—lay claim to anything as our own, most especially our very lives? We belong to Christ as his brothers and sisters and as his servants. Everything is his and his alone. If there is a seraph serpent in your life, a biting temptation, or poisonous sin waiting to strike you down, this might be b/c you have failed to enjoy the absurdity of the cross and cling still to something or someone who belongs to Christ. Empty yourselves in surrender so that Christ might fill you with his own thanksgiving. On this most absurd of feasts, look upon the cross and give God thanks for your salvation! 

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  1. Always great to recall or exercise these more..."unpopular" aspects of the Faith, even though we (apparently) know and believe them on a rational level...

    Thanks Fr.

  2. The end of your antepenultimate sentence had me a little confused - I read it a few times, and I think I understand what you were saying.

    Overall, enjoyed this one. Lots of good reminders, especially that when we have "anything to lose, we have yet to surrender wholly to God"..."we belong to Christ...everything is His." Amen - and so easy to forget.

    So profound, isn't it, that what hurts us can also heal us? That was certainly a reminder I needed to hear. Thank you!

    1. "Empty yourselves in surrender so that Christ might fill you with his own thanksgiving"? That one?

    2. No, the one previous to that one -- sorry, I so rarely get to use antepenultimate, and was excited to do so, that I forget it is not a common word!
      "... this might be b/c you have failed to enjoy the absurdity of the cross and cling still to something or someone who belongs to Christ." It was the "who belongs to Christ" at the end that threw me.

    3. Ah, OK. I went looking with "penultimate" in mind. The use of "who" and "that" has become confusing of late. Usually, you use "who" when talking about "someone" and "that" when you are talking about a thing. But which one do you use when you make a compound noun of "something" and "someone"? Oy. Grammar.