Facing the Bronze Serpent
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, September 8, 2013
John 3:13-17 (Sunday Before the Cross)
The story of the bronze serpent in the wilderness is an interesting one. The Israelites are grumbling about their time in the wilderness and the Lord gets royally annoyed, so he sends poisonous snakes into the encampment to bite them. They cry out to Moses for help. God has pity on them and instructs Moses to create a bronze statue of a serpent and to raise it up on a pole. Everyone who looks at the serpent is healed and does not die. St. John uses this as a metaphor for Jesus being lifted up upon the Cross and crucified for the salvation of the world.
The image of the very thing that caused so much suffering becomes the source of healing. Wounded by fiery serpent and healed by a bronze serpent. It is the Cross that wounds and heals us. It represents the process of internal transformation.
St. Paul urges us to offer your very selves to him: a living sacrifice, dedicated and fit for his acceptance, which is the worship offered by mind and heart. Adapt yourselves, he continues, let your minds be remade and your whole nature in this way transformed.
The Way of the Cross is about the real and present possibility of Transformation, but for this to happen we have to happen we have to be lifted up with Christ and die with him. This is the hard message of the Gospel and in order to embrace its fullness, we have things to do. The message of the Gospel is far too grand for us to experience without making preparations.
How do we do this? What does Paul mean when we speaks of the worship of mind and heart? He speaks of an interior spiritual work that he knows from experience and leads to this: it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. Here are four elements of this healing process that we can make part of our conscious effort.
First we must die to ourselves. Fr. Thomas Keating expresses this beautifully, If we stop reflecting on ourselves, we will move into perfect peace. The innate tendency to be aware of oneself is the last stronghold of self-centeredness. Jesus was utterly selfless. If we pay close attention and look within, we may be shocked to see how self-absorbed we are. I, I, I. Me, me, me. What I like, what I don’t like. Who I like, who I don’t like. On and on it goes. So much of our time is spent trying to do and get what we want and avoid what we don’t that we barely have time to take a conscious breath or notice if something more interesting comes along.
Secondly, we must learn to be still. Be still and know that I am God. Jesus on the Cross was still, that is, he did not resist. He did not call down legions of angels. He did not curse his executioners. He remained still both inside and out. He embraced the Cross completely. Stillness of mind, writes St. Hesychios makes evil inoperative, brings consolation in the midst of suffering, and is the essential ingredient to unbroken prayer. Stillness is a sign of faith and trust that is so complete that nothing can shake it.
Thirdly, we must nurture interior silence. Jesus is said to have spoken only six short sentences as he suffered on the Cross. The rest of those awful moments he endured in silence. Silence is a profound testimony to faith and acceptance. One of my favorite references to silence comes in the Book of Revelation. When the angel breaks the seventh seal there is silence in heaven for a half and hour. Mysterious and dramatic! It is a sign that something great and terrible is about to occur. Let all mortal flesh keep silence is the hymn of Holy Saturday when the Great Silence occurs as Christ rests from all his labors. Silence is the prerequisite to theophany, to internal healing and transformation. It is, as Isaac of Syria writes, the language of the age to come. We can learn this language in the here and now and when the age to come comes we will be prepared to speak it there.
Stillness and silence are closely related: the ham and eggs of a good spiritual breakfast. Fr. Thomas Keating writes, Silence is God’s first language, everything else is a poor translation. In order to hear that language we must learn to be still and to rest in God. A healthy spiritual life begins a good breakfast of stillness and silence.
Fourthly, the Cross is about the mystery of solitude, of being alone. On the Cross the Lord’s aloneness is so shattering that he cries out that he has been forsaken even by his Father. The depth of that loneliness must have been unbearable. Being lifted up on the Cross means having no solid ground under our feet. This is the experience of detachment; of having nothing to hold on to, of being left without moorings, without anchors. It is like the experience of sky-diving into the unknown. In the spiritual life many of the mystics speak of this experience. It is necessary. It is the Cross. If we follow Christ we will know it for ourselves. It is wrenching and yet it leads to resurrection. The Lord’s frequent journeys into the wilderness to pray represent his voluntary acceptance of detachment. This is how he prepared himself detachment and dereliction: death on the Cross.
I love what Krishnamurti wrote about solitude.
The ecstasy of solitude comes when you are not frightened to be alone, no longer belong to the world or are attached to anything.
Self-sacrifice, stillness, silence and solitude are four of the elements present as Christ suffered crucifixion and they are mirrored in the spiritual life of those who follow him. They are for us. They are the narrow path of those who desire with all their heart, soul, mind and strength to take up their cross and follow him. All this in order for one thing to happen: that Christ may be born in us and that we may be entirely his.