[The Passion Narrative of St. John, Chapters 18 – 19:42 is traditionally read today around 3pm.]
A wonderful confluence of events happened at the beginning of what is traditionally known as Passiontide this year. This is the time period that includes Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday and the Sunday before it. You may have noticed that the statues in St. Stephen’s are covered. This is traditional although it hasn’t been customary at SSM for a while. Frankly I’ve never done it in my 23 years of priesthood. So with the kind promptings of a parishioner who purchased the veils, I attempted to follow the instructions in the Ordo (the annual instructional manual for liturgical dates in the US). Being a neophyte at this, I didn’t give our kind donor instructions to purchase coverings for our angels or the altar cross. The angel problem was easily solved. I took them down. How many angels can fit into a closet? Yet I didn’t feel motivated to remove our new bronze altar cross. I think now that I understand why.
Ordinarily this altar furnishing doesn’t face you, the congregation. But ever since these days of Private Masses, it has been. See, I’m facing ad orientem (liturgical east). I’m looking towards the Lord since I’m without you. Things started coming together in my mind on the Tuesday that followed the Sunday that began Passiontide. On that Sunday we read about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and on the following Tuesday we read about the strange passage of Moses being instructed by God to make a bronze image of the serpents who have been biting the people and making them mortally ill. A little background is necessary here.
Moses was leading the Israelites through the desert to the Promised Land and not unusually they are complaining, “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness, where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this wretched food!”* So the LORD sent among the people seraph* serpents, which bite the people so that many of the Israelites died. (Numbers 21:4-9)
Moses pleads with God for the people and is given a solution to the problem. This solution we regard as a Good Friday prophecy. “Make a seraph and mount it on a pole, and everyone who has been bitten will look at it and recover.” (ibid.)
So Moses goes about this curious remedy by making a bronze image of the same serpents that are killing the people and lifts it up on a pole so that they may gaze upon it and be healed. We may recall Our Lord prophesying His death on the Cross. “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” (Jn 12:32)
What in the world does gazing upon a horrific death have to do about our salvation? It is a mystery. I don’t understand. But, hey, I wouldn’t be much of a pastor if I didn’t give it a try. So, here goes.
It is no longer popular to bronze one’s baby shoes. This trend seemed to be on the decrease when I out grew out my first shoes. But nevertheless I was aware of the unique custom. What is the thinking behind it?
I would have to say that it was a mother’s way of capturing some precious memories in the life of her family. I’m sure that the custom goes back to a time before photographs were so readily available. If you will, Moses was bronzing the serpent to capture an image in the few ways that were available in his age. Why the image of an object of death? Or even, why an image? The Israelites have their newly minted Ten Commandments that strictly prohibited graven images. Why this departure from the new law?
Obviously, it was to convey something really important. For the Christian believer there is nothing more important than the Cross, the means of our salvation.
So there I was preparing for Mass on the first Tuesday of Passiontide and I gazed into the sanctuary of St. Stephen’s from the pews. The only image unveiled was a bronze image of Jesus crucified standing , or lifted up, on the altar. By gazing upon the bronze serpent lifted up the Israelites in the desert were healed. The Roman soldier at the foot of the Cross, has a moment of saving faith, “Truly, this was the Son of God!” (Mt 27:54)
As we read today exclusively in St. John’s Gospel who breaks character and interrupts his dispassionate narration of historical events to say, the “soldier thrust his lance into his side, and immediately blood and water flowed out. An eyewitness has testified, and his testimony is true; he knows that he is speaking the truth (because that witness is John)…” Then, as a good pastor, he gives a brief sermon, “so that you also may come to believe.” (Jn 19:34-36)
The Latin word for healing, salus, is often used to convey our Christian notion of salvation. The Israelites are healed and we are saved. (Interestingly the image for Blue Shield uses the snake on a pole as a universal sign of medicine) The saving event of the Cross is not trapped in the past, like an object dipped in metal, but rather it is placed on the altar.
The blood and water to which John testifies is how this awful event finds it was into our lives. We are reborn and nourished through the elements flowing from Christ’s side. We are washed clean by water and Spirit at our Baptism in the Blood of the Lamb and sustained throughout our life on earth from the nourishment of the altar. We behold the source and summit of our faith, the Eucharist, made present by the holy Sacrifice of Calvary, re-presented on each and every altar.
In solidarity with the Israelites who were healed by gazing upon the bronzed deadly punishment of their sins, likewise we come to the altar. Every Catholic Church is equipped with a crucifix for this very reason. It is why on Good Friday we commemorate Our Lord’s Passion by lining up to reverence the Cross.
During this dramatic liturgy the priest is instructed to gradually unveil the covered cross and proclaim three times, “Ecce lignum Crucis, in quo salus mundi pepéndit. Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the salvation of the world.” And the congregation responds, “Come, let us adore.”
The bronze crucifix on the altar is a snapshot image of the furthest extent that God went to win us back. As horrible at it is to behold we know through faith that it shows God’s love.