I’m always so grateful to be Catholic. One of my favorite things is the Word of God at Mass. As I’ve gotten older — I feel more and more like the readings have been designed especially for me. Which is always good news. And sometimes it is “I just got socked in the head by God” news. But I’m always humbled and grateful.
Today is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross — a meaningful day for me personally in many ways. Today marks several anniversaries for me: of my paternal grandmother’s death. Of my job interview that brought me to my previous parish. Of an especially important Youth Day liturgy for me in another diocese. Of my first real retreat given as a youth minister. Of the inception of the religious community I’m discerning. And the parish feast day of a good and holy priest friend. And the Triumph of the Cross is also sort of like the “half-birthday” of Good Friday. Sort of.
So these readings have great significance to me. But today as with many days — it’s as if I am hearing them for the first time. God always wants me to hear something I’ve never heard before, notice something I’ve never noticed before — and find Him in a space…or hear Him saying something I haven’t been prepared to find or hear until now.
I love all 4 of today’s readings for what I’m sure are the obvious reasons. They just ROCK. But our first reading gave me some personal insight today. I realized today that outside of the people complaining about food, water, weather, terrain, and then after getting smited by the Almighty Smiter Himself — they complain about snakebites — God could have easily just taken away the serpents. But He doesn’t. He leaves them. One presumes by the reading that the serpents continue to attack the people. But instead of taking something away — God gives them something extra. He adds to the equation. He gives them an opportunity to actually — physically — turn back around to face Him — by physically turning to look upon the bronze serpent on the staff in order to live.
The Grown Up Me knows this prefigures Jesus on the Cross and that we must look at him to live — but I can remember being about 10 years old and hearing this reading and thinking: “Hang on. BRONZE serpent? Didn’t God like *just* give those jokers the 10 Commandments? And didn’t they *just* get busted for golden cows or something? No graven images? But bronze serpents will heal you? What kind of trick is this?”
No trap. The Numbers reading refers to “saraph serpents.” According to the footnotes — saraphs were either poisonous flying snakes whose bites caused a burning pain (Wisdom 16) — OR a derivative of the fiery seraph angels guarding thrones in heaven — whose winged presence would have caused burning (Isaiah 6, 14, 30). God always gives us what we ask for — but in a way that is good for us. When we try to take away or get rid of things in our lives — or in the lives of others — that hurt, sting, or threaten our worldly lives — we risk missing the chance to physically turn around — and look God in the eyeballs. A tremendous current-day-new-evangelist I know would say, “in the eyelashes.” And that’s when things get spiritual. That’s when things truly get resurrected. And we move towards LIFE. Not this worldly life. Everlasting life. The life we were loved into being for. The life we don’t even realize we long for most of the time.
God is not Santa Claus. We don’t hand him a list. Or Albus Dumbledore. He doesn’t reverse whatever spell has been cast. God calls us to work within his plan. In this case — I am the Israelites. Asking for emancipation and receiving it. And then becoming impatient with the circumstances under which I have received what I have asked for. And so I doubt. I fear. I complain. Yet I received what I asked God for, didn’t I? I have a dear friend and together we muse that although we beg God to make us saints — when given the opportunity to do this inside of our vocations — I can’t even be kind to others and she can’t even get the laundry done. Some martyrs we’d make. PSH.
And so here come the snakes.
I’m pretty sure God does not wish to punish me for poor behavior. Although my behavior is certainly poor. I think He means to remind me that at my very best — when I am listening to and being obedient to His plan for me — I place my trust in Him completely. And that’s how I get led to wherever I am at any given moment. The serpents are about causing me to once again place my complete trust in Him to get me to the next place. Taking away the serpents and curing me demands no action on my part. And God is all about action. All about the 2-way street. All about encounter. Encuentro. Authentic and intimate friendship. My participation and cooperation inside God’s grace and my free will. I must stop what I’m doing and turn around and *look* at God in order to be healed. I must make that Act of Faith. I must surrender to God. Return to the mission. A favorite priest friend reminded the assembly once that submission is not the word we think it is. It’s not about weakness and dominance. It’s about having strength and courage to play on the team. To both lead and be coached. To share the burden. To carry — and even embrace — the cross. To be a good steward of what we have been loaned. To wash feet. It means to be “under mission.” A mission from God. Then we are co-missioned…can you imagine? Having a co-mission — a shared mission with God? Like THE God?! We have a role in that mission?! YES! My very favorite line in the newest translation of Eucharistic Prayer II is: “…that we may merit to be co-heirs to eternal life.” CO-HEIRS. We are adopted children of God. CO-HEIRS. This is what we are called to become. Called to return to. Called to receive. We live up to our dignity and birthright in every Act of Faith.
SO — this first reading for me this week — is about really committing to humbly and joyfully working inside of the scenario God has given me. Serpents included. There can be no resurrection without a crucifixion. So I need to get it together. This is the exaltation — the triumph — of the cross for me this week. Until I get more instructions next Sunday. And I am furthermore forced to consider with great sadness as well that there are people in this world — for whom I am the biting-pain-causing serpent. ACK.
I find great encouragement and fortitude in that we are marked, then — with indelible signs from our Baptism and Confirmation — perhaps like a snake bite would leave a mark behind. The acts of faith — both in the turning towards God and in our sacramental lives are then what marks us. This is the how and the why we Point Catholic.