“No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (Jn 3:13-15).
The reference to Moses lifting up the serpent can be found in Numbers 21:4-9. The people, worn out by their journey in the desert began to complain instead of trusting in God’s deliverance. The people sought a return to their prior condition of slavery rather than forge ahead and endure the trials of gaining freedom. Venomous snakes came into the camp and began to bite many who then died. The people recognized their sin and implored Moses’ intercession. Moses prayed for the people and lifted up a bronze serpent on a pole and whoever looked upon the serpent was healed.
There is a difference between seeking understanding from God, seeking to understand why something is happening in our lives, and complaining from a posture of self-centeredness. The Israelites were looking at their present condition of suffering and missing the point that they were free from slavery. They were not trusting in God’s providential care and support present to them in the moment.
How often do we, with our ease of access and access to comfort, slip into the same complaining mode when something doesn’t go quite right. St Paul reminds us through his words to the Corinthians: “Let us not test Christ as some of them did, and suffered death by serpents” (1 Cor 10:9). From the first moment that JoAnn and I received the diagnosis that she had pancreatic cancer, we placed ourselves in the Garden of Gethsemane. We did not seek our will but the Father’s. We followed the lead of what the medical field had to offer but also recognized that healing in this life was not coming.
There is a gift of knowing your time is limited. In fact, all of our time here is limited. We live our lives better by acknowledging instead of denying that reality. We did not become bitter or angry, we accepted each stage of JoAnn’s decline as it came and appreciated the time we were given, our last seven months, our twenty-three years of marriage, is a blessing to cherish because we spent it growing closer to God and each other.
Nothing about the journey we may have experienced or are experiencing with the death of a loved one is easy. What all of us are given are precious moments to experience with each other. We need to resist taking them for granted. Paul reminds us that no matter what arises, no matter if the circumstances are inconvenient or dire, “God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it” (1 Cor 10:13).
Today, we celebrate the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross. It is a good reminder that, when trials and tribulations arise, we are invited to look to the crucifix. The sacramental reminder that the Son of God came to be one with us, to experience the fullness of our human experience, even our pain and suffering, man’s inhumanity and deepest acts of inhumanity. He was willing to experience all of this to lead us to freedom through his death, resurrection, and ascension into Heaven. JoAnn died but through the saving grace of Jesus the Christ, through the triumph of his Cross, she is now born from above and is participating in his new creation.
What used to be a symbol of oppression, torture, and capital punishment is no more. Let us embrace and “glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ; in him is our salvation, life and resurrection. Through him we are saved and set free” (Gal 6:14). Is the life of the disciple easy? No. And there are times we will be angry with God and to share that genuine emotion with God is authentic prayer. Bringing our anger and grief to God is also the appropriate way to channel our emotions as long as we are willing to let them go and allow the love of the Holy Spirit to guide us through our pain to healing.
Photo: JoAnn and me at Our Lady of Florida Spiritual Center on a formation weekend. We did not know at that time that her experience of and participation in the triumph of the Cross would come as soon as it did.