Look at the Crucifix

A reading from the book of Numbers (Nm 21:4-9)

The Israelites left Mount Hor by the road to the Sea of Suph, to skirt the land of Edom. On the way the people lost patience. They spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in this wilderness? For there is neither bread nor water here; we are sick of this unsatisfying food.’

At this God sent fiery serpents among the people; their bite brought death to many in Israel. The people came and said to Moses, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Intercede for us with the Lord to save us from these serpents.’ Moses interceded for the people, and the Lord answered him, ‘Make a fiery serpent and put it on a standard. If anyone is bitten and looks at it, he shall live.’ So Moses fashioned a bronze serpent which he put on a standard, and if anyone was bitten by a serpent, he looked at the bronze serpent and lived.


“When you are tired of the journey of life, look at the crucifix”

It is Pope Francis’ advice at this morning’s Mass, 20 March 2018, at Casa Santa Marta.

The Pope bases his reflection on today’s First Reading, from the Book of Numbers, which tells of how the people of Israel felt desperate in the desert, and about the snakes: people were hungry and the Lord responded with manna and then with quails. To the thirst of the people, God responds with water. Later, near the promised land, some people grew skeptical because the scouts sent by Moses reported a land full of fruit and animals, but also inhabited by a strong and armed population. They suddenly felt afraid of being killed. The Bishop of Rome observes, “By looking only at their own strength, they forgot the Lord’s strength which had liberated them from 400 years of slavery.”

People “did not bear the journey”, as it happens when people start “to follow the Lord, they start to be close to the Lord” but at some point, difficulties seem to prevail. It is that period of existence in which one thinks and says, “But, that’s it! “I’ve had enough! I quit. I’m going back. And perhaps we even feel nostalgic of the past, “about the meat, the onions, and other wonderful things”.

Francis exhorts us to note the partiality and distortion of this “sick memory”, because, in the case of the people of Israel, those were the times when the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt.

These are “the illusions that the devil brings: he makes you see the beauty of something that you have left behind, from which you have converted, it is that moment of desolation you feel during the journey, when you have not yet arrived to the Lord’s promise”. It is “a little like the journey of Lent, yes, we can think of it like this; or conceive life as Lent: the Lord’s trials and consolations will always be there, there is manna, there is water, there are birds that feed us … but that meal was better. Yet don’t forget that you were eating at the table of slavery!”

Pope Bergoglio then warns against something even worse: “talking bad about God”, which is like “poisoning our soul”. When one believes that the Lord does not help, or that there are too many trials, one has “a depressed, poisoned heart. And, as the First Reading reports, the snakes that bite the people are “the symbol of that poisoning”, of the lack of constancy in following God ‘s path.

Moses, at the Lord’s request, makes a bronze serpent and places it on a pole: it is the serpent that heals all those attacked by snakes for having talked bad about God. This scene and image is prophetic: “it was the figure of Christ on the cross”.

And here it is “here is the key to our salvation, the key for having patience on the journey of life, the key to overcome our deserts: looking at the Crucifix. Look at Christ crucified. “And what should I do, Father? Look at it. Look at the wounds. Go inside those wounds, for by those wounds we have been healed”. Do you feel poisoned, sad, do you feel that your life is not working out, that it is full of difficulties and illness? Look there”.

In dark and difficult moments, the Pope exhorted us to look at “the ugly crucifix, at the real one: the artists have made some beautiful, artistic crucifixes”, and this can’t be always considered “worldliness” because their intent is to exalt “the glory of the cross, the glory of the Resurrection. But when you feel like that, look at the ugly one: Before glory”.

The Pontiff recalls when, as a child, he went with his grandmother on Good Friday to the candlelight procession in which the lying, marble, life-size Christ was brought by. Grandma knelt down: “Look at it well – she said -for tomorrow he will rise again!” As before Pius XII’s liturgical reform, the Resurrection was celebrated on Saturday morning, not on Sunday: and Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s grandmother, on Saturday morning, as she heard the bells of the Resurrection, had her eyes cleaned with water, to see the glory of Christ.

Francis invoked: “Teach your children to look at the crucifix and the glory of Christ. But we, in bad times, in difficult times, when we are poisoned a little by having said in our hearts some of our disappointment against God, look at the wounds. Christ lifted up like the Serpent: because he became a Serpent, he annihilated himself in order to win over “the” evil Serpent. May the Word of God teach us today this journey: to look at the crucified. Especially when, “like the people of God, we get tired of the journey of life”.

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