Friday, 15 September 2017

The Bronze Serpent: Biting, Healing and Gazing

The 14th of September marks the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. 

"Moses and the Brazen Serpent," Anthony Van Dyck, 1620.

A Bit of History

The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross dates back to 335 A.D. at the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: the location believed to be where Jesus’ body was interred. The 14th September marked the second day of a festival commemorating the relic of the true cross, brought out of the church for the veneration of the faithful.

Saint Helena of Constantinople, National Gallery of Art (US).
It is traditionally believed that the relic of the true cross, upon which Jesus was crucified, was discovered nine years earlier in 326 (according to some accounts, even earlier) by St. Helena—the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine—whilst on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Theodoret’s (d. 457 A.D.) account goes as follows:

When the empress beheld the place where the Saviour suffered, she immediately ordered the idolatrous temple [of Venus], which had been there erected [probably under Hadrian], to be destroyed, and the very earth on which it stood to be removed. When the tomb, which had been so long concealed, was discovered, three crosses were seen buried near the Lord's sepulchre. All held it as certain that one of these crosses was that of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that the other two were those of the thieves who were crucified with Him. Yet they could not discern to which of the three the Body of the Lord had been brought nigh, and which had received the outpouring of His precious Blood. But the wise and holy Macarius, the president of the city, resolved this question in the following manner. He caused a lady of rank, who had been long suffering from disease, to be touched by each of the crosses, with earnest prayer, and thus discerned the virtue residing in that of the Saviour. For the instant this cross was brought near the lady, it expelled the sore disease, and made her whole.[1]

Purpose of the Feast

Outside of this specific historical context, the feast day is a dedicated day on which the Church celebrates and recognises the mystery of the Cross as the instrument of universal salvation, and as the perennial symbol of God’s love for us. Interestingly, the word “salvation” in Greek in its broadest sense refers to health, wellbeing and welfare in the holistic sense, the body included. This ties in with Theodoret’s account above which involves the healing of an ill woman by means of the cross.

On the Cross, God’s love is made manifest—demonstrated in the Crucified-One, wounded and bloody, nailed with arms open in a gesture of the Word, that speaks louder than words. A gesture which comprises the message of the Gospel, the Good News, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but would have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16).

Moses and the Bronze Serpent

A key motif of the readings designated for the Mass of the Feast is the bronze serpent which Moses lifted up in the wilderness. To cut a short story shorter: the Israelites, who despite been delivered miraculously from the slavery of Egypt, were complaining once again about God and the leadership of Moses. Serpents are sent as a result, and many of the people are bitten and die. In turn the people plead with Moses to intercede with God. Moses pleads, God answers and tells him to fashion a serpent from bronze, and to place it on a stand and lift it up. Moses is told that anyone who is bitten who looks at this serpent, will be healed. Moses does as he is told, and the people are healed by gazing at the bronze serpent.

Jesus—The Bronze Serpent

In the Gospel of John, Jesus draws a direct parallel with his pending crucifixion and the bronze serpent of Moses:

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him, may not perish; but may have life everlasting. (Jn 3:15).

Here Jesus explains that the bronze serpent of Moses was merely a foreshadowing of His being lifted up on the standard of the Cross. As gazing upon the former bronze serpent brought about the physical and temporal healing of the body, so the gazing in faith upon Jesus Crucified, as the only Son of the Father sent to die for our sins, brings about the spiritual and eternal healing of the soul by means of redemption.

The Biter Got Bit

The Old Testament recounts that the cause of the people’s ailment was the bite from serpents. This reminds us of the Genesis creation account, where a serpent (interpreted as Satan in disguise) deceives Eve and leads her to sin by breaking God’s command and eating the forbidden fruit. Adam joins the party, and we have what the Church calls Original Sin: the first sin, which is the cause of our ‘natural’ state of disunion with God.

In a figurative sense, we can say that by achieving the deception of Eve, Satan in the guise of a serpent bit Eve, ironically through her biting into the forbidden fruit; and by Adam’s yielding to Eve’s invitation to bite the fruit, Adam was bit in turn. The poison of concupiscence—of evil inclination—was injected into their souls, and thus into every human being henceforth. Fundamentally good, yes, but now inclined towards evil.

The poison: concupiscence. The ailment: Original Sin. The remedy: the true bronze serpent—Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, who was lifted up on the Cross, that whosoever looks upon Him with the eyes of their heart, believing that He is the Son of God, Love Incarnate, will in turn be healed interiorly.

Baptism: The First Look

Baptism is ordinarily the first look—a turning of the eyes of the soul in faith, towards Jesus—which heals the soul of the ailment of Original Sin. Adults do so by their own faith, young children by the faith of their parents. Those baptised past the age of reason are healed of all personal sin as well—those under age not having any to be healed of. Yet life happens, we’re imperfect creatures, and so we need to return to the divine physician.

Confession: Extraction and Anti-Venom

Thus, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, of Confession comes into play, which is one of the two key sacramental ways in which the soul gazes upon Christ. The sacrament restores and renews the soul’s health by extracting the poison of concupiscence in the form of personal sin.
Mortal sin is like a fatal dose of such poison, from which the soul must be revived; and each venial sin a non-fatal dose, smaller or larger, which needs to be extracted to restore the soul to full health. The Sacrament of Confession sacramentally accomplishes this.
Private and personal repenting in perfect contrition is essential and also accomplishes this, yet it ought to serve as a staple-compliment to the frequenting of Confession as minimally required by the wisdom of the Church, and in the instance of mortal sin, must be followed by a hasty Confession.

The Sacrament of Mercy, as Pope Francis so calls it, is a load-lightening gift from God. It’s the hospital bed every Catholic is invited to lie upon. Our embarrassment stemming from pride ought not keep us away! It would be akin to one of the Israelites, if upon being instructed that gazing upon the bronze serpent would heal him, refused to do so, simply out of pride of not admitting he was bitten. Like the bronze serpent, held up by Moses for all to see, Christ is there, hanging on the Cross, spiritually waiting in our hearts for our repentance, and in the confessional to absolve us. Healing itself, as a God-Man, reaches out to us, all we need is to take hold of the opportunity while we have it.

Confession is not only the means for extracting the poison of sins committed, but it administers the anti-venom of God’s grace, bestowed through this Sacrament, which strengths the soul against further “bites”.
We may not always feel it emotionally, perhaps somewhere deeper down—but regardless, the reality takes place: the bloodstream of the soul is cleansed by this Sacrament. Reviving the soul with a joy and peace the world cannot give.
St. Pope John Paul II understood this well, and is why he supposedly frequented Confession every day! Not that everyone should frequent the sacrament every day, since this could fan scrupulosity in many, but nonetheless, as usual, the saints show us what’s important and inspire us to imitate in accord with our unique personality. We are asked to do so at least once a year, but weekly, fortnightly, or monthly, is an excellent practice.

The Eucharist: The Healer in Our Midst

"Jesus giving Communion to the Apostles," Joos Van Wassenhove, 1472.
The Holy Eucharist is the crème de la crème of the Sacraments. The remedy of remedies. The most important sacramental means by which we look upon Christ. The Sacrament by which we not only gaze in Adoration upon the Crucified Christ, disguised under the appearance of bread; but by which we come into real contact with the Healer of our Souls in the reception of Holy Communion.

CCC 1394 states: “As bodily nourishment restores lost strength, so the Eucharist strengthens our charity, which tends to be weakened in daily life; and this living charity wipes away venial sins.” Indeed, reception of the Eucharist is our manna in the wilderness of this life. It strengthens us in our pilgrimage to heaven, and in our mission to love God and neighbour alike. By receiving His wounded and glorified Body, we are healed and sanctified—instantly in soul, and by pledge, in our bodies. By receiving His innocent and pure Blood, are own blood, poisoned with sin, is transfused with His innocence and purity.

Funnily enough, the temporal manna was part of the reason the Israelites were complaining against God and Moses. They were sick of it. Sadly, as Catholics, we often lose sight of the glorious reality of the Eucharist, and the supreme gift and fount of grace which it is.
Like the Israelites, we can grow indifferent to the Eucharist, perhaps even losing faith in the Real Presence—that Jesus isn’t simply symbolised by the bread and wine, but that He is truly and really present under the outward form of bread and wine. This is why it’s important to call out to Jesus, like the people called out to Moses, asking Jesus to give us the faith we need to believe He is with us in the Eucharist. And if we already have such faith, to call out to Jesus that He might spread that belief so that all would come to taste the beauty of this Sacrament which restores the soul who beholds the Healer behind the mask.
The serpents came to the Israelites as a result of their ingratitude and indifference to God’s gift in the temporal manna. This teaches us that when we knowingly put Jesus in the Eucharist to one-side, without letting the Eucharist be at the center of our lives, we unnecessarily open ourselves to various kinds spiritual serpents which will attack our faith, hope and love.

The Loving Gaze of Adoration

'Healing the Man Born Blind," Duccio, 1308 - 1311.
St. Augustine commends us to adore Him who we receive. Beyond reception of Jesus in the Eucharist, by which we consume the Divine Healer and Physician into our souls, Eucharistic Adoration is the means by which we lovingly gaze into Him who although is before us sacramentally, is mysteriously within us by grace. These loving gazes which we cast upon Jesus in the Eucharist vivify our souls in grace, and infuse in us blessings which will endure in paradise.
Yet Jesus gazes out upon us as well, peering through the lattice of the accidents of bread and wine (Song 2:9)—penetrating our souls with a gaze which melts and heals the soul in love. So profound is this invisible gaze of love, hardly able to be sustained at its climax, that in respect to the soul and to Jesus, the words from the Song of Solomon apply: “Turn away thine eyes from me, for they have overcome me” (6:5). Or as might otherwise be translated: “they have overwhelmed me”, “they have captured me”.

The time we dedicate and set aside to spend in the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, is time spent under the standard of the true bronze serpent, Christ Crucified—time not wasted, as the economic mind-set of the world would see it, but time invested in healing us, and through us, the Mystical Body of Christ. Since when we come before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, we bring everyone along with us, past, present and future. When we adore, we must therefore cultivate that sense of adoring on behalf of everyone. For in our gazes on Jesus, we can gaze on behalf of all, in the faith that as Jesus pours healing on us, He is pouring healing on the entire world in every generation. Since Jesus’ love and healing cannot be confined by space or time.

The Glance of Prayer

Then comes prayer. Personal and private prayer, carried out in the secrecy of our hearts. There is no limit to the amount of times we can turn the eyes of soul in faith, towards the standard of the Cross. Silently. Perhaps with a word of praise or invocation through the day. By means of devotionals, such as the Rosary, wherein we join Mary in Her perfect and profound gaze on Jesus.

Joining in the Perfect Gaze of Mary

Indeed, we cannot forget Mary. She alone can teach us the art of that loving and trusting look. That uncompromising gaze which is fixed passionately on Jesus, in profound reverence and confidence. It’s a good thing we can claim in faith, Mary’s own perfect-loving gaze. In time, we will be swept up by it as Joseph was, who through Mary perfected this art in his own right. Gazing upon Jesus as an infant, and worshipping Him in his heart. In turn, John the Beloved became an apprentice of this trade, studying under the Virgin Mary. The trade of Adoration, passed down through the ages from loving soul, to loving soul.

The Moses-Call: Lift Up!

"The Crucifixion; Moses and the Brazen Serpent," in Farnese Hours, Giulio Clovio, 1546.

What else can be said but a summons to imitate Moses, who lifted up the bronze serpent for the healing of the people. Sure, the ministerial priest does this very act in a unique and remarkable way, at the elevation of the Host, and in Eucharist processions and Benedictions. Yet as baptised Christians, we are members of the royal priesthood—the priesthood which the Church teaches is common to all. By means of this priesthood, we have the privilege and the responsibility to lift up Jesus in our hearts, through our worship and praise. In prayer, deed and in our very lives, by our witness in ordinary living.
At its worst the countenance of a Christian can be a moralistic harbinger of judgement, an illuministic plaster void of authentic spirit, or a pietistic mask grinning as an expression of a “love-bomb” technique that seeks to proselytise for reasons of self-glory instead of sincere love. But at its best, the countenance of a Christian can radiate the healing presence of Christ, through a genuinely human smile, a hearty laugh, or a look of appreciation and recognition—especially to those “bitten” by society and pushed into the shadows. The poor, the homeless, the elderly. Yet the business man and the cash register deserve no less. Everyone unknowingly suffers from the original “bite” and the poison of sin, and thus everyone intrinsically craves for the healing which comes from meeting eye to eye with Christ. The nearest they might get is a genuine look from someone like ourselves—and as imperfect as we are, God’s love within us transcends it all.

The fashioning of the bronze serpent and the healing derived therefrom, arose from the intercessory prayer of Moses. Thus in addition to lifting Jesus up in our interior lives and exterior lives, is lifting Jesus up in prayer carried out in the Spirit for the benefit of others. Prayer which is simply filled with the intent to bring Jesus to all so that spiritual healing might come to all the nations and their people—to every man, woman and child. Do we not know that by a simple intent we can spiritually lift up the Cross of Christ in any country, town or home, thereby bringing healing to such places, to those open to such graces? We do not need to be physically present, all we need is the faith and desire to do so. “Ask and you shall receive.” We can raise up the standard of the Cross even into the realms of purgatory, thereby placing before the holy souls the Crucified One, who upon gazing upon Him they’ll be able to increase in healing, quickening their time of purgation, all by means of such prayer.
We can visit the dying, even if we cannot be physically present. We can visit the sick, and imprisoned. Nothing substitutes for a physical presence, unless of course our state and vocation in life dictates otherwise, but such ministry carried out spiritually can accompany our concrete deeds, all by means of faith. By praying for anyone, we attend to them in the Spirit, and join them in drinking from the healing poured out upon those who gaze in trust upon the Lord.


Moses brought the bronze standard to the people, thereby bringing them healing. Let us carry forth the Cross of Christ, in prayer, word and deed, in our hearts and on our walls, to all people, especially those in our parishes, schools, families, workplaces and communities. The Gospel, the Goods News, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but would have eternal life” is preached the loudest by one who lifts up the cross in their own life, by embracing it with full vigour, eyes fixed on Christ, and directed towards the peak of Calvary to join Him in the consummation of love.

This gaze involves the Sacraments, it involves Mary after the pattern of Joseph; prayer and adoration, corporeal acts of mercy, and spiritual acts of mercy. All these solidify the gaze of love which finds its fulfillment in beatitude.

On this note, the words of the peasant who used to spend hours in front of Jesus in the Eucharist, apply—as a call to adore, and as offering an insight into what heaven will essentially involve. One day, the Cure de Ars asked the peasant, “What do you say to Jesus during all this time of prayer?” The peasant simply responded, “Nothing, I look at Him and He looks at me.”

[1] Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History Chapter xvii. “Venus” inserted as per the account of Eusebius on the Holy Sepulchre, and “Hadrian” as per being the most likely historical candidate.

Monday, 4 September 2017

The Father and the Son

A theological reflection written on the occasion of Father's Day (Australia).

Bog ojciec syn Boz.

The Gospel’s present a simple and pervasive truth. Jesus profoundly loved His Father. In fact, the verbal accounts of Jesus are really nothing other than Him speaking about His Father. It’s all He talks about, for the Father is the subject-matter of His message and the Father’s will is the food of Jesus’ earthly existence. It’s the reason Jesus became man—to lead all humanity in its exodus from estrangement from the Father in heaven, into the Promised Land of His Father’s beatific embrace. The Father sends the Son into the world, and the Son returns with His disciples who He has made His friends. In short, everything about Jesus points to the Father.

Then there’s the Father. The few times the Father speaks in the Gospels, every single instance is in referral to His Son, Jesus. At the baptism and transfiguration: “This is my Beloved Son, listen to Him!” Even in referral to glorifying His own name (Jn 12:28) it’s in the context of occurring through the Son’s death and resurrection—for the Son’s glorification is the Father’s. Never mind the Old Testament, in which the Father is traditionally understood to be the principal divine person in-the-fore. As a result, what is the Old Testament about above all else? The Son. It is a collection of works foreshadowing and foretelling Jesus the Son of God as the Messiah.

It’s a mysterious thing. God is Father. God is Son. God is Holy Spirit. One God in three distinct divine persons. Among the closest analogy to which analogies can get, though falling severely short, is water, steam, ice: three forms (liquid, gas, solid) of the one substance, water.

But God isn’t simply a father, but the Father. Nor is God simply a son, but the Son. The definite article “the” speaks volumes about God.

For as Father, God is the highest, most supreme, most gentle, most fatherly of all fathers. The ideal father, at once encompassing every ideal conception of father and infinitely beyond every such conception. All other forms of fatherhood, temporal and spiritual, fall short as mere silhouettes of the Father.

As Son, God is Son above all other sons. For there have been many sons beget by many fathers throughout the ages, who in their father’s eyes were estimated with innocence, hope, “a chip off the old block,” and in the sense of the idealisations of children in general: purity, sincerity, vulnerability and laughter. Childhood is deemed a sacred thing, and even the most perfect child and the most idealic childhood that can be imagined, simply point beyond to He who is Son beyond all sons, child beyond all childes. No son is innocent like the Son, who is Innocence Itself. No son is “a chip off the old block”, formed in the image of his father like the Son, who is the Image of His Father.

The Father loves the Son. The Son loves the Father. Their mutual-love is so great, it is divine, and eternally proceeds from a shared and single Will: from the Father as Unbegotten-Generator, and Son as the Begotten. The Third-Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, is indeed the mutual-love between the Father and the Son. For the Holy Spirit is the Father’s love for the Son; and the Holy Spirit is the Son’s love for the Father.

The most noble and exalted love that can exist between a human father and his human son can arrive at being no more than a separate and distinctly held, though mutually shared, habitually established act of the will for the good of the other. Yet the love between the Father and the Son is not held separate, but in Their One Single Substance, mutually possessed as not an act apart from Their Will, but as the distinct Third Person of Their Community, Their Heavenly Family, in Their very one-same Will common to all Three.

All created reality finds its origins in the mystery of the Trinity. The quintessential mystery underpinning all things, pervading all things, pulsating in all things, calling and beckoning all things: back to the Father the Maker of all things; through the Son, through whom all things were made; and by the Holy Spirit, by whom all things were made.

The human soul, unfettered of sin and given flight by prayer, cannot help but propel itself, be totally and utterly seduced by the loving movement of the Holy Spirit at work within the depths of the heart. That Loving Vortex who draws her to Jesus Christ, the Son of sons, all towards the Father, our Father in heaven, to know and love this Father as fellow sons, as fellow children, in the Son. Sharing in knowing and loving this Father, with the very knowing and loving of the Son. The very knowing and loving who is the Holy Spirit.

Words alone fail miserably, but the mystery is brought alive through faith and desire. To the one who asks, it is given. To the one who knocks, it is opened. To the one who seeks, it is found.

Human love is beautiful, and its natural scene in the family, with the institution of marriage as its foundation, is vital and must not be dismissed as trivial, nor cheapened by a novel sentimentalism divorced from anthropological continuity. Yet what is temporal and finite is nothing compared to the eternal and infinite, which does not denigrate the former, but builds gracefully atop and transcends it: the very reason why the Church as the custodian of the Trinitarian Mystery is the champion of the family. For nothing can compare to sharing in the communion of love between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The heart is restless until it rests therein. The soul is thirsty until it drinks thereof. And the depths of a man are haunted with an aching emptiness until he comes to eat and be sated therefrom.