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The Rev. Irina Dubinski

Van Dyke, The Brazen Serpent

Holy Cross 2022

This coming Wednesday, the Western Church will observe Holy Cross Day that finds its origin in the 4th century story, at the center of which was a powerful woman. When Constantine I decided to give his mother Helen the honorary title of Empress Augusta, he transformed the life of this divorced, exiled, and forgotten middle-aged woman. She was then able to mint coins, and gain unlimited access to the imperial treasury. What did she do with her newfound power? Among other things, in her late 70s, she led an archaeological expedition to the Holy Land, saw a pagan temple in Jerusalem, and had it demolished. That’s when the relics of what was thought to be the very cross of Jesus were discovered, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was commissioned to replace the temple – dedicated on Sept 13, and the relics first venerated on Sept 14, 336 AD.

The churches built by Empress Helen were magnificent, but they were all of the “small c” kind. While she had the privilege of demonstrating her faith and enabling that of others in this way, the work of other Christians manifests itself in, perhaps, more subtle ways; yet, thereby, we all build the “capital C” Church. Since Thursday, we have been reviewing and giving thanks for the life of another powerful Christian woman, who exemplified one way to live as a person of faith in the world in which the status of Christianity has changed effectively over her life-time (as it did in Helen’s time, but in the other direction!). Queen Elizabeth II has certainly shaped history, and inspired many people - influential and ordinary, Christian and others. However, what struck me as the most prominent thread in the publications that have come out since, is the theme of duty - the one also amply manifested in her husband’s obituaries we read only last year. This theme resonates well with the Holy Cross observance – essentially, a low-key Good Friday, when we wonder again and again, why Jesus had to suffer, and why do we. Is duty an answer? If so, to whom or to what? Or is there more to it?

What would you say is your cross? Perhaps, an element of senseless, unnecessary suffering that you experience either because “bad things happen to good people,” or simply because aging, deterioration, and dying is part of living, even for those of us who are privileged (is that the right word?!) to continue doing so for a century. Conversely, your cross might be something or someone which you endure out of compassion in imitation of Jesus. At times, it might seem that acting upon your sense of being right is just not worth it, and so you “turn the other cheek”. Maybe, you do in fact make sacrifices for the sake of duty - something that we see in the life of the Royal family, but find equally present in ours. Our world presents endless opportunities to grow in perseverance, patience, and compassion; thereby becoming more like Christ - bit by bit, day by day, more divine! Yes, the cross of Jesus is certainly the archetype of the totality of our own crosses; but mystically, it is more than that, as it also sanctifies and redeems them. Therein lies the greatest paradox of our faith: the instrument of inflicting pain and death, and that of healing, is one. But, it is just that - an instrument. The true source of salvation and sanctification is God; the Creator who has made everything good, and who, I believe, never inflicts suffering to chastise or improve us. We do enough of that on our own.

Indeed, humans have been trying to understand the origins of our crosses for as long as we have existed as more or less sentient beings. The writers of the OT gave one explanation for the twists and turns in the history of their people, which they, in fact, did view as the consequences of angering their God (perhaps, not dissimilarly to the worldview of their pagan milieu!). Take the bronze snake in Moses’ story. In the 13th century BC, Moses and his people escaped Egypt to enter the desert -- and coincidentally, the physician named Asclepius who gave us the symbol of medicine, began his work on the battlefields near Troy. After Aaron’s burial on Mt Hor, they had to skirt the land of hostile Edomites by completing an extra large loop. By this, they were disheartened and complained. In retaliation, God afflicted them with the “fiery serpents”, from whose bites many suffered and died, as an echo of the primordial wound inflicted in the Garden. The people repented, and Moses put the sculpture of a snake upon a pole (essentially, the rod of Asclepius!), to which the people had to direct their gaze to be healed. John’s gospel attempts to show that Jesus used this story to illustrate that he had some understanding of the Cross in the days before it, which is definitely something you’d find only in the Fourth Gospel, as opposed to the three earlier ones. What do you think was the real extent of Jesus’ ability to anticipate and accept the Cross? What is ours? (Or do we simply blame God for all our wounds?)

With regards to the desert snakes, I find it instructive that a) God didn’t call away the snakes, but gave a ritual activity to counteract their bites; and b) that this God (who once told them not to make graven images) gave them a ritual object to accompany the action. The ritual and the object, together, became a conduit for healing, of which God himself was the source. Not surprisingly, at around 550 BC, the Israelites, having had retained Moses’ sculpture all these centuries, began to worship it (cf. 2 Kings). As the supposed relics of Jesus’ cross were worshiped. As we idolize celebrities and royals, power, wealth and knowledge. In our world, it is rare to pinpoint something as an unequivocal source of either suffering or joy. Medicine itself, of which the snake upon the rod is a symbol, may improve the quality of life, or prolong it beyond the point of total loss of quality, or to bring the end of life when in fact the quality of life could still be rescued, if at the expense of the duration. Even our worship of God; we are rarely capable of offering it apart from our expectation of healing, perception of duty, and disappointment in either. Once again, the bite of the serpent is but a reference to our inability to use our gifts solely according to God’s purpose for as long as we are still “in the desert”.

So maybe, to truly carry the cross means to endure life with the sacred knowledge that there is more to it than meets the eye, that we do not fully belong here, and yet having to look through the glass to see our true purpose only dimly. And still, persevere out of love for God and others until our faith, worship, and knowledge all become perfected in Heaven, as they now have been for our Queen. Thanks be to God.