Crossing through the Desert

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

EX 3:1-8a; 13-15; PS 103: 1-2, 3-4, 6-7, 8, 11; 1 COR 10:1-6, 10-12; LK 13:1-9

In these middle Sundays of Lent, the Gospel readings call us to conversion, and the Old Testament readings give us a brief history of conversion in the Old Testament. This Sunday they give a dense meditation on the passage through suffering.

In the Gospel, “Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.” All year, we are in Luke’s Gospel; here, in chapter 13, we are after 9:51, the pivot point, when “Jesus steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem.” Luke’s Gospel, like Lent, is the journey to the Cross.

And some tell him about what horrible things Pilate does to people.

Jesus’s response is twofold. On the one hand, he says that having horrible things happen to you is not necessarily a bad thing. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means!”

And yet he has already changed the subject, from the suffering they endure in their bodies to the state of their souls. The questioners say, “oh, they suffered!” Jesus says, “they are not sinners.”

And so the second thing he says – twice, after two parallel stories – is “if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” On the one hand, he says, don’t worry about the suffering. Suffering is not evil, sin is evil, and suffering – such as the suffering inflicted by the evil man Pilate – does not prove that you are evil. On the other hand, suffering is the destiny of evil people.

He underlines this second point with the story of the fig tree: it is given a few chances, but finally, if it does not bear fruit – the fruit of repentance – it will be cut down.


There are two kinds of punishment. There is vengeance, an expression of hatred. But there is also correction, or discipline, which is an expression of love. Correction often makes us suffer; often it is precisely through suffering that we correct the ones we love, as when we punish our children. But that suffering is a tool.

God never hates, he is never purely vengeful. To the contrary, the only suffering that does not correct is the suffering of Hell. But that suffering is self-imposed: if we refuse to embrace the good, we end up without it. Suffering in this life is a tool of love, meant to save us from the meaningless suffering of eternal emptiness.


Our Old Testament reading, from Exodus, and our Epistle, from First Corinthians, are both about Moses in the desert. The desert is the place of suffering, the epitome of Lent.

St. Paul tells us “our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea.” They were saved in a fearful way. The cloud (which led them through the desert) did not feel like enlightenment. The sea (which parted to let them escape the Egyptians) was terrifying – it saved them because it destroyed what would hurt them, the Egyptians. But God saved them through those fearful ways.

He provided for them in the desert, with “spiritual food” and “spiritual drink.” It was precisely in lack that they discovered God’s sufficiency. The suffering of the desert was not a bad thing. It was a place to discover God.

“Yet God was not pleased with most of them,” and so “they were struck down in the desert.” We have to use that suffering well. Going out into the desert, we have to find God. If instead we make it a place of grumbling, the corrective suffering of love turns to the empty suffering of Hell.

All of this, says St. Paul, a sign of our Baptism. We are plunged into the water. The Greek word for Baptism means the water goes over our heads, we are submerged. But if we find God, that drowning is a place of union.


In Exodus, Moses finds God in the desert. “Leading the flock across the desert, he came to Horeb, the mountain of God.” Horeb itself is a Hebrew word for “desolation,” in the midst of Sinai, which means “glaring,” as in, glaring sun on glaring sand and rock. It is in the desert that he meets God.

God is in a bush with “fire flaming” – the doubling is an emphasis. God is fire – but not fire that destroys. God has “heard their cry of complaint,” their “suffering,” their “affliction.” He has not abandoned them in the suffering. It is in their suffering, in the desert of Egypt, that they learn to turn to him.

And there Moses discovers God as I AM, as the only thing that is fully real. But we have to go to the desert, we have to pass through the suffering of Lent, to find him.

How is God purifying your sight through suffering?

The Exaltation of the Cross: Suffering and Gratitude


NM 21:4b-9; PS 78:1bc-2, 34-35, 36-37, 38; PHIL 2:6-11; JN 3:13-17

This Sunday, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross takes precedence over what would be the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time. The readings show us how the Cross teaches gratitude.

The first reading, one of the stories about the Exodus in the Book of Numbers, begins with one of the Bible’s most amusing stories, about ingratitude. God has brought his people out of slavery in Egypt – and they complain, “against God and Moses,” “We are disgusted with this wretched food!”

The Exodus is the central story of the Old Testament. This humorous little story of ingratitude takes us to the heart of Scripture.


God’s response foreshadows the Cross. He punishes them, with biting serpents. But why does God punish?

The punishment leads them to ask God for deliverance: “Pray the LORD to take the serpents from us.” The punishment takes them from complaining to trust, from ingratitude to a rediscovery of gratitude.

God’s way of salvation is even stranger, at first glance, than is his choice to punish. “Make a saraph [a serpent] and mount it on a pole, and if any who have been bitten look at it, they will live.” The poisonous snake on a pole becomes the symbol of healing. (We still see that symbol on ambulances, and are reminded of it – and of the strange old union between barbers and medicine – in barber poles.)

The whole dynamic is of gratitude. To look at the bronze serpent is to be reminded that everything comes from God: the punishment, the good things we were punished for not appreciating, and the healing from that punishment.

Our sufferings cease to sting when we discover that they too are a gift.


Our reading from Philippians, the great Christ Hymn, gives us another angle on the same story.

“Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.” The Philippians hymn teaches us about two kinds of grasping.

The first is our grasping. We think everything is ours for the taking. We demand food – and delicious food! – in the wilderness, we demand an end to our suffering. We demand even equality with God. But Jesus teaches us that equality with God is not something to be grasped. Like everything else, we can only receive it as a gift. We need a savior.

And that savior himself does not grasp, and so shows us what it looks like to accept God as Father. “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. . . . He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death.” Jesus models the humility that alone can lead us to God: the humility that grasps at nothing, and is obedient even to death on a cross.


John’s Gospel simply states the thesis. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”

People often insert a word that isn’t there. “God loved the world so much”? But that’s a different word (ever clearer in the Greek). It doesn’t say this is how much God loved the world. It says this is the way he loved the world.

The particular way God chose to love us was by giving his Son to die on a cross – “just as,” the same passage tells us, “Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert.”

He could have loved us a different way: could have given us more delightful food, could have shortened our wanderings in the desert. Instead he gives us the Cross – both the fangs that sting us, and the sting of death lifted up in our sight.


“He gave his only Son,” John tells us, “so that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but might have eternal life . . . that the world might be saved through him.”

We can look at our crosses and think God wants “to condemn the world.” Rather, he wants to remind us that “no one has gone up to heaven” without being taken there by Jesus; “equality with God is not something to be grasped.”

Like the serpents in the desert, our crosses, paradoxically, can teach us not to complain, but to cry out to God for help. When we cry out, God does not give us the deliverance we expect. He shows us the Cross of Jesus, to teach us that our crosses are gifts from him, just as everything is, and that the true relief is his presence, his union with us. He alone is our peace.

What parts of our life do we fail to receive with gratitude?

At the Foot of the Cross, She Stands

stabat materOn Monday, a week after Mary’s birthday, and one day after the Triumph of the Cross, we celebrate Our Lady of Sorrows.

The tie-ins are nice. First we celebrate, with a bigger feast, Christ’s triumph. In fact, this feast used to be called, “The Finding of the Cross.” “Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the Savior of the world.” This is a very objective feast. By focusing on the Cross itself, it reminds us that Christ did the work. Christ saves us. It is the Cross that sets us free.

Placed in September, it lets the Easter mysteries of Spring penetrate to the other side of the year. And it recalls the High Holy Days of the Jews, and the Day of Atonement, in which the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies to offer sacrifice for the sins of the people – perfected on the Cross.

But the next day, we celebrate, as it were, the subjective side. It is Christ who saves us. But it is Mary who is first to be saved, Mary who receives the gift of Christ on the Cross. Our Lady of Sorrows doesn’t do anything, except enter into what Christ does. Yet it is that entering in that is the whole point. Christ died to save us – and Mary stands there for us.

Indeed – this is the other tie-in – it is for this that Mary was born. In a quick week, we go from celebrating all the promise of Mary’s birth to seeing the fulfillment of that promise, in the Cross. For this she was born: to share in the sufferings of Christ, to be bathed in his blood.


But what does Mary gain at the Cross? What happens to her there?

The tradition – especially the Dominican tradition – focuses on a single word in John’s Gospel: “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother” (John 19:25). Stabat Mater, sings the great sequence, the special hymn for this day: she stood.

She did not faint. Though others were there, the heart of the mother, which, Simeon prophesies in Luke’s Gospel will be “pierced by a sword” (Lk 2:35), is a singular place to meditate on this standing.

Notice, when you look at traditional art of the crucifixion, that Mary Magdalene is typically sprawled on the ground. And who would not? The Cross is too awful, the very pinnacle of awfulness. If the Cross does not make us despair, if the Cross does not make us faint, then nothing will.

But the Cross does not make the Mother of Jesus faint or despair. She stands. (So, says the Greek of the New Testament, does the disciple Jesus loves: in traditional images, John too is standing with Mary, as we are called to stand.)


We are not meant to see in this an image of Mary’s strength, or stoicism. To name a feast Our Lady of Sorrows is to see the connection between Mary Magdalene and Mary the Mother of Jesus. She has every reason to fall. Nobody’s heart could be more broken than Mary’s.

How then does she stand? Her standing is an image of grace. We can imagine a ray of light (as in the image of Divine Mercy) shining into Mary’s heart, holding her up beyond all human strength. A ray of hope beyond hope: for “hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man sees, why does he still hope for? But if we hope for what we do not see, then with patience we wait for it” (Rom 8:24-25).

The Holy Spirit dwelling in Mary’s heart keeps hope alive in complete darkness. She cannot see beyond the darkness. But hope keeps her alive. Hope keeps her standing.

And the root of that hope is love: the love that binds her to Jesus on the Cross, and the love that is as strong as death (Song 8:6).


This is the Gospel. This is the meaning of the Cross.

Jesus does not save us from suffering. We are “joint-heirs with Christ; if we suffer with him, then we may be also glorified together” (Rom 8:17). Glory sounds nice – but the promise is that we may pass to heaven through the Cross.

Yet the promise of Our Lady of Sorrows is that we can stand through that suffering. Jesus has been there. Mary has been there. John has been there. We do not take the place of Jesus, but like Mary, his Spirit poured into our hearts can transform our suffering into the place of union, of hope and love. If, like John, we stand at the foot of the Cross with Mary.

What Cross is Jesus offering to help us stand through? What does it look like when we faint?

Anointing the Sick: Preparing for a Good Death

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

We come this week to the Anointing of the Sick, arguably the most beautiful sacrament of all. The Church comes to those who are facing death (not necessarily about to die, but it is the danger of death that defines this sacrament) and treats them with dignity.

There are two ways to think about the anointing. One is a kind of strengthening, something like a massage to loosen up the muscles before an athletic event. We can also think of it in terms of grooming: the Church comes to give you a shave, or put on makeup: to say, on your death bed, that you have dignity and you are beautiful. New technology like the startifacts epilator makes it much less unpleasent for the people performing these tasks. I suspect this is the original way of thinking about anointing: “oil causes the face to shine” – and the bread of Viaticum “stengthens man’s heart” (Psalm 104:15).

In any case, the Church sits with us in the face of death. Why?


First let us notice two ways to think about “morbid.” Especially in our current cultural situation, it is considered morbid to acknowledge death at all. The old Catholic notion of preparing for death, or praying for a happy death, seems too horrific to even contemplate. Better to pretend it never happens – and to push to the side anyone who might remind us that death happens. Better not to think about it.

But death does happen. My, does it happen. Two of our friends have recently lost babies. In fact, most of my closest friends have had babies die. It is horrific. I have watched people I love as their parents die, which is nearly as horrific. And of course, it will happen to all of us: some of us will be spared seeing our children or spouses die, but only if they have to see us die first. All of us will die.

Put it this way: it is not the Church that causes us to die. It is the Church, rather, that lends dignity to death. It is not Jesus on the Cross who makes there be suffering in life. It is Jesus on the Cross who lends dignity to our suffering and death. A proper religious treatment of suffering and death does not create suffering, it just helps us to deal with what will be there whether we accept it or not.


But why is suffering there? We can say it is natural, and there is something to that. To embrace suffering, to deal with it, is to embrace reality, and embodiedness. To lend dignity to death, to shave its grim face and comb its hair, is to look for dignity in reality, rather than hoping to find dignity by playing make-believe.


But the Christian can go deeper than that. We believe that suffering and death are a punishment for sin. At first glance, that sounds too horrific for words. God could have spared us, but punishes us? What kind of God is that?

First, notice that there are two kinds of punishments. There is physical suffering and death, and then there is hell, which is spiritual suffering. What kind of punishment is hell? In some sense, “punishment” is the wrong word for it. Hell is the belief that we really can reject God, that we can choose to be without love. It is horrible, but it is a possibility.

When we look into ourselves, we find, in fact, that it is pretty common. So often we – even we, who make an effort at these things – choose to live without God, without love, without hope, to immerse ourselves in lesser things. And it is miserable. Hell is a possibility, not because God makes it, but because we do.

Why then does God give us the “other punishments,” suffering and death? Precisely to save us from the only ultimate suffering. When we accept suffering in the name of love, when we sit with a loved one who is suffering, when we stand by the Cross, the point is not that suffering is good, the point is that love is good, that it’s worth suffering for. Suffering is there to help us learn.

Our death itself will be a key moment, the ultimate moment to embrace our true values, and let go of what isn’t really important. Let us live as if love is worth it.


Media vita in morte sumus; quem quaerimus adjutorem, nisi te Domine, qui pro peccatis nostris juste irasceris? Sancte Deus, sancte fortis, sancte et misericors Salvator, amarae morti ne tradas nos.

In the middle of life, death is all around us. Who can be our help, except you, oh Lord, who rightly hate our sin? Holy God, holy and strong, holy and merciful Savior: let our death not be bitter.


How have you learned from suffering?

The Good News of Ash Wednesday

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

On one level, Ash Wednesday is pretty depressing. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” Thanks a lot! While we were receiving ashes yesterday, the choir sang the whole Psalm 51, part of which was the Responsary Psalm for the Mass. “I was formed in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Ouch!

And, indeed, if Ash Wednesday is pessimistic in this way, it is only highlighting something that runs throughout Christianity. Christ has to die on the Cross? And he tells us to pick up our cross and follow him? And to follow the path of poor in spirit, and those who weep.

And, truth to be told, if you read the Gospels, there’s an awful lot of threats: “Whosoever shall say, ‘You fool,’ shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matt. 5:22); “it is better for you to go into life maimed, then having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: where their worm dies not, and their fire shall not be quenched” (Mark 9:44). If we don’t “clothe the naked,” etc., Jesus says he wil tell us, “Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). Don’t blame this on the Old Testament: there is nothing in the Old Testament remotely like the threats that Jesus himself makes in the Gospels.

Even the happy story of Christmas holds within it the claim that we need a savior. Whatever Psalm 51 means when it says, “in sin did my mother conceive me,” it seems that we all are in trouble if Jesus doesn’t “save” us. A person can be forgiven for asking why this “gospel” is “good news.”


It might be helpful to focus more clearly on that claim that Christianity is good news. The essential message of Christianity is not that we are sinners, but that we can be better.

Think of it this way. “In sin did my mother conceive me” might mean some bad news: you thought you were okay, but it turns out, there was something horrible you didn’t even know about yourself. But the “news” here might be of a different kind. It might be more a definition of what we mean by sin. “Sin” doesn’t mean “what you thought was innocent is actually horrible.” It might just mean “your natural state” – with the indication that somehow God can do a whole lot better.

Perhaps, for example, it’s just “normal” for people to call each other fools, to be grumpy and prickly, and lustful, and materialistic, and lazy. Hold off on the word “sinful” for a moment and go ahead, make the excuse: that’s normal. It’s hard for us to be any different. Go further, and say, it’s really unrealistic to expect us to be any better. We can’t be expected to be any other way. We’re just born that way. “In ‘situation normal’ my mother conceived me.”

The Good News is that our “normal,” our “it really can’t be any way,” is not the way it has to be. The claim is not that normal is bad. The claim is that Jesus offers us something better than our normal.


The same can be said of “remember man that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The first part (that we are dust) is perhaps mysterious, but the second is not. We are all going to die. That is not a strange dogma that Christianity made up, it is simply the truth. The question is not whether we’re going to die. The question is what we’re going to do about it.

In our culture, of course, the main answer is that we should do our best to forget about it. “Forget, man, that to dust you shall return: cram yourself with mass media, run around frantically, and whatever you do, don’t think, lest you remember that to dust you shall return.”

But again, rather than condemning that attitude as “sinful,” let’s just say that’s normal. What else can we do? Death is a pretty awful idea. Of course we run away from it. What else can we do?


“There’s nothing we can do about it.” That is our “natural,” “normal” situation. We can’t do anything about death, we can’t do anything about our moral nastiness.

This is not news. This is normal.

The Good News of Christianity is that Jesus Christ can do something about it. With him – but only with him – we can do better. We can love, and live forever.


How do you manage the “bad news” of “normal”: of impending suffering and death, of moral weakness?