Snakes on a Pole

Note: the entries listed with a back date on them are getting pasted over from Gianna’s site and refer to the date listed.
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 14, 2008 08:12 AM, CDT
Today in the Catholic Church it is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. It’s one of those feasts that at first glance leaves us scratching our heads. Doesn’t Good Friday cover this? Why bring it up again in September? My women’s group prays with the scripture for the coming Sunday on the Monday prior, so I have been mulling over this Sunday’s readings all week. For me, they have been an answered prayer.

Like the Israelites in the first readings, I have had my “patience worn out by the journey” the last few weeks (Nu 21:4). I have been on the brink of self pity as I mourn the family I desired to have. No matter what happens with our family in the future, Isaac will not have a sibling close in age, which is something I had wanted for him since he was born. There is nothing like comparing yourself to the Israelites in the desert that can rescue you from that brink! In this reading, they had just been rescued by God from certain death in battle, and then get tired again and begin complaining that God “brought us up from Egypt to die in the desert”. Clearly, they knew that God could save them. He had already made that clear. He had promised he would care for them. But, after walking for all that time, eating “that wretched food”, “their patience was worn”, and they complained.

I can understand how they feel. Tired, hungry, not knowing where they were going or what God’s plan was. It was a tough life, to be sure! I know it must have felt like God had played some cruel trick on them, liberating them from slavery, then parading them through the sand, day after day. But their weariness was not their sin. I think the reason they were punished was because in their frustration, they got nasty with God, insulting him by forgetting that he was doing all of this for their good. Instead of crying out for help, (“Lord, please give us water and food in this desert. We are losing heart!”) Their complaint assumes an evil intent on the mind of God, and a marked lack of gratitude for what he was in the process of doing (ie saving them from slavery and preparing to make of them a great nation).

This is not to say, of course, that people who get angry with God in their grief are going to be bit by fiery serpents. One of the reasons God sends us suffering is to get us to face the tough questions, and to dialogue with him. He knows us very well and he can take it. But I don’t think anger with God should be a default setting. It is something that ultimately must be overcome in order for healing to take place, for it is from him that the healing comes. Indeed, this reading is chosen for this feast because the healing of the Israelites through the brass serpents on the pole foreshadows Jesus’ own “lifting up” on the Cross. He himself is offered for us as the antidote to that self pity. God, on the Cross, pouring out his blood to the last drop says to all of us, “You can believe it now. I am Good. You can trust me. The road to your freedom will be hard, like mine, but don’t give up. I have a plan. And I will be suffering along with you.” Who can grumble against that?

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