And Healing to the Wounded Grant

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Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent

Numbers 21: 4–9
Psalm 101: 1–2, 5–17, 18–20 (R. 1)
John 8: 21–30

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The Serpent and the Cross

Today the Church gives us a passage from the Book of Numbers that, from earliest times, the liturgy and the Fathers have associated with the mystery of the Cross. This same passage provided Father Luc de Wouters, O.S.B. with the title of his biography of the foundress of the Congregation of the Benedictines of Jesus Crucified, Mother Marie des Douleurs Wrotnowska: Le Serpent et la Croix, The Serpent and the Cross.

The Bite of the Serpent

Father Luc writes: “The episode of the bronze serpent recounted in the Book of Numbers seems to us extremely significant. It projects onto the mystery of the redemptive Cross a light, the importance of which we do not sufficiently grasp.” He writes that Mother Marie des Douleurs encountered the Cross, as we all do, in her own sin. For her, as for all of us, sin was the bite of the fiery serpent. It was, nonetheless, upon this cross, the cross of her own brokenness, weakness, and sin identified with the Cross of Jesus, that she was united with the Saviour, l’Homme des douleurs. The cross of her disfiguration by sin and weakness, assimilated to the Cross of the “Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief” (Is 53:3), became the Cross of her transfiguration by grace.

The Mystery of Iniquity

Father Luc, with no little eloquence, emphasizes that the Cross is the last word of the Incarnation. We are certain of meeting the Cross at every moment of our existence. Whenever we find darkness all about us, the darkness of our own sins and of the sins of the world, the Cross shines like a saving beacon. Personal sin causes an intimate anguish that only the Cross can alleviate. Consciousness of the evil that inhabits us, and of the evil that stalks the world, brings with it a terrible anguish. Our Lord’s agony in Gethsemani was the manifestation of the anguish of His Heart in the face of the mystery of iniquity.

Wounds Uncovered

It is easy to become hypnotized by the shadow of evil cast by the serpent. How many souls, instead of lifting their gaze to the Crucified, turn in on themselves, see their sin, and sink in the quicksand of despair. Sin, our own sin and the sin of others, exercises a morbid fascination on us. The remedy is to look upon “Him who they have pierced” (Jn 19:37), and to believe in the love of Jesus Crucified. The remedy is to expose our wounds, however purulent and shameful they may be, to the wounds of the Crucified, for “by his wounds we are healed” (1 P 2: 24). One of the prayers before Mass in the Roman Missal has us say: “To thee, Lord, I uncover my wounds; to thee I lay bare my shame. My sins, I know, are many and grievous; they fill me with fear, but my hope is in thy countless mercies.”

Bitterness

So much suffering is self-inflicted. Apart from the real illnesses of the body or of the mind, the afflictions of the heart or the darknesses of the soul, there is the suffering that comes from turning in on oneself. When suffering engenders suspicion, aggressiveness, bitterness, or the criticism of authority, it is poisonous, not redemptive. There is no merit in enduring the suffering caused by resentments that we continue to feed, or by the bitterness that we refuse to let wither and die.

Murmuring and Grumbling

The First Reading dramatically illustrates this last point. During the Exodus, the people of Israel became impatient with Moses, the man whom God had set over them. It was because they murmured and grumbled against him, that God sent fiery serpents among them. Only after they were bitten by the serpents and many of them died, did the people confess their sins of murmuring and disobedience. “The people came to Moses, and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for them.” (Num 21:7).

The Face of the Crucified

One understands why Saint Benedict would excommunicate any one found to be “contumacious or disobedient or arrogant or a grumbler or one who sets himself up against some point of the Holy Rule or despises the ordinances of his seniors” (RB 23:1). Murmuring begins in closing oneself off, in listening to the serpent, in holding fast to one’s own’s perceptions. Liberation and healing come through lifting one’s eyes to the Face of the Crucified, through the listening that changes life, and through the decision to receive the truth that, while it wounds, heals.

Where Grace Abounds

Traumatized as little girl by her mother's mental illness and subsequent sequestration in a mental hospital, and later in life haunted by a need for affection and adulation and tempted to the abuse of alcohol, Mother Marie des Douleurs struggled against the darknesses that threatened to swallow her up. She struggled to lift her eyes to the luminous mystery of the Tree of Life, and to Love Crucified. “I feel myself imbued with shadows,” she wrote. But for her, as for each of us, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom 5:20). Shortly before her death she experienced a mysterious identification with priests in moral difficulty, and renewed the offering of her life for their sanctification.

And Healing to the Wounded Grant

These blessed days of Passiontide are an invitation to repent of our sins of murmuring, of every attachment to bitterness, of every refusal to turn our eyes away from ourselves and fix them on the Face of the Crucified. The second to the last verse of the Vexilla Regis can become, for all of us, a prayer for inner healing and for renewal. Let it accompany us to the altar where the mystery of the Cross is made present in the unbloody renewal of Christ’s one sacrifice.

O Cross, all hail! Sole hope, abide
With us now in this Passiontide:
New grace in loving hearts implant,
and healing to the wounded grant.

1 Comments

I really needed to read this today, Father. Thank you.

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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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