The Stigmatisation of St. Francis (Bardi Chapel) by Giotto di Bondone
Today’s feast day invites us to consider the mystery of our Lord’s Cross, which St Helena (the mother of the Emperor Constantine) found during her pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 326 AD. In a sense, it is quite a strange thing to ponder and venerate the Cross of our Lord when one considers what the Cross is. The Cross is a device of torture and capital punishment. In the ancient world, Roman citizens sentenced to death were usually decapitated, whereas slaves and foreigners were given the slow, painful, humiliating death by crucifixion. The Cross is therefore a dark and gruesome reality, and yet Christians use it as a sign of blessing and identification: We begin and end our prayers with the sign of the cross on our bodies; we wear it as jewellery; it is traced by the clergy to bless objects and the faithful, to consecrate the Eucharist, to mark candidates for Baptism, to Confirm, to absolve sins and to anoint the sick and dying. This really is extraordinary, considering the horror of what the Cross is, and yet it makes absolute sense. It was through the Cross, in all its gruesomeness and horror, that the new life of grace and mercy were purchased for us. The grace of every Sacrament and blessing of the Church comes from heaven through the Cross of Christ whose redeeming sacrifice opened heaven for us. Just as sin and death came into the world through a tree (Gen 3:1-7) by which Paradise was first lost, so Paradise is restored to us as forgiveness and eternal life come into the world through the tree of Calvary.
There is, furthermore, as the readings for today’s feast point out, an interesting connection between our Lord’s crucifixion and the incident with Moses and the bronze serpent in the desert. During their purifying sojourn in the desert, the Israelites begin to long for the comforts of their previous enslavement in Egypt and so complain against God and 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” (Num 21:5). At this rebellion, God sends “fiery serpents” among the people whose bite “brought death to many in Israel”. After their repentance, God commands Moses to fashion a fiery serpent out of bronze and to place it on a standard so that whoever should gaze upon it may be saved. One might ask, how does looking at the bronze serpent have a healing effect? Moreover, why would God command Moses to make an image of the very thing that has bitten them, in order to heal them? This is further complicated, and yet perhaps better explained by considering the nature of these “fiery serpents”.
The Hebrew text uses the word saraphim, which means the “fiery” or “burning ones, to describe these serpents, perhaps because of their painful bite. But this word occurs elsewhere in the Old Testament, most notably in the vision of Isaiah wherein the prophet sees the God of Israel enthroned in the temple– surrounded by the Saraphim (i.e., seraphim) or the “burning ones”. Seraphim, we know from Isaiah’s vision are six-winged angels who veil their faces to the divine presence as they sing the angelic hymn, “holy holy holy is the Lord of hosts…” (Is 6:3). It is these same creatures that are said to have bitten the sinful Israelites in the wilderness. This may seem surprising; however, we must keep in mind that angels and demons are one and the same creature, the difference being that demons are rebellious angels who have sinned against God. If that is not enough, we should remember that the book of Genesis also explicitly describes Satan, a fallen angel, as a serpent (Gen 3). In allowing the Israelites to be “bitten” by the fallen seraphim, sinful humans are exposed to sinful angels and thereby experience firsthand the fruit of rebellion against God.
But why does God command that a seraph be fashioned and placed on a standard for the viewing of the critically ill Israelites? Perhaps the bronze seraph was the image of a good seraph, rather than a demonic one? I think that the answer lies rather in what this event prefigures. The Lord Jesus himself referred to this event in connection to his crucifixion: “the Son of Man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (Jn 3:14-15). Let us consider the crucified Christ. St Paul wrote that in his death, Jesus ‘became sin’, though he himself knew no sin (2Cor 5:21). In the image of the crucified Jesus, we see the full weight and consequence of sin embodied before all. For “The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). In the crucified Christ, we see the wages of sin personified, though he himself was totally innocent and free from sin. In this embodiment of our punishment, death is put to death and eternal life is opened to those who believe in him. This last bit is crucial: Jesus says, “so that everyone who believes (i.e., has faith in him) may have eternal life in him.” Faith is not just an assent or agreement to something. Faith is a type of gaze; it is the spiritual organ by which we lay hold of and commune with our Lord. With the gaze of faith upon the one who is become sin for us, embodying the full extent of our wounded and corrupted nature, we may apprehend the forgiveness and eternal life which heals our nature and raises it up.
The gaze of faith upon the one we have pierced is key to our healing, just as it was for the Israelites who looked upon the bronze seraph, the image of very thing that had bitten them. When we look with faith upon sin personified –my sin personified– we see the very thing that has “bitten” us. When we face our sin in truth, and when we see the one who out of love has been “bitten” for us, true repentance may begin to take root in our souls, affixing us to him in faith, hope and burning charity. If we are thus affixed to him in his crucifixion, we shall be fastened to him in his resurrection. The cross then, while it is a gruesome reality in a very real sense, is a lifegiving and healing reality insofar that it is sin and death that are put to death on the cross in our place. The tree of the cross becomes therein the tree of life for us whose unitive gaze of faith fastens us to the Lord in his death and therefore in his resurrection. When the Lord asks us to take up our cross and follow him, then, may we do so with the gaze of faith, knowing that through it we are being fastened to him and so being brought to true life.