Seen and unseen, said and unsaid
The following is more of a meditation than a sermon — occasioned in part by Jesus’ connection of the cross with Moses’ serpent of bronze in today’s Gospel, and in part by some of the responses to last week’s sermon — variously jubilant or concerned that I had downplayed the doctrine of the Atonement. My intention was not to downplay the doctrine, only to shift focus from the mechanisms of forgiveness to the God who forgives. The meditation below is an elaboration on that shift in focus, as well as a continuation of previous themes on worship in general. It was preached on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Refreshment Sunday, 11 March 2018 at St. Mark’s, Berkeley. The choir sang a setting of the mass by Arvo Pärt. The photo is of the rood screen and chancel at Christ Church, New Haven, CT, by Lauren Larsen Photographs.
Collect: Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which giveth life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Readings: Numbers 21:4-9, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.
One of my favorite churches is in New Haven, Connecticut, the parish where I served as a seminarian years ago. They have an old-fashioned rood screen like ours, an open, carved wood lattice placed at the juncture between the nave and the chancel. A great, almost life-sized cross stands at the summit, and all the carved work makes the screen feel like a sheer, breezy curtain into some Moorish walled garden in some desert palace long ago. It marks a transition from one place to another, one attitude to another, one world to another, as communicants pass beneath the cross on their way to the altar to make their communions with the One who hangs there.
As you walk under the cross, your eyes shift to the altar, and to the communion rail ahead. But behind you, up on the beam that supports the cross, there are words carved into the wood — facing backwards, facing back towards the altar. It’s a quote from John’s Gospel, a later repetition of one of the verses we heard just now: carved in the old King James,’ “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.”
It’s an architectural way of making a very complicated and very beautiful theological point, plain for all to see on any given Sunday at the administration of communion. It’s also a reminder to the clergy, who is really the MC, the conductor of the Liturgy: Christ himself, more than any one or group of his ministers. It is his action, his love that orchestrates the whole celebration, his grace that calls us to the altar and that binds us to one another in these holy mysteries.
But as Jesus makes clear with Nicodemus in the Gospel today, the cross is also a direct reference back towards the episode in Numbers which we also heard today: the people of Israel have made their Exodus from Egypt, and they have wandered in the wilderness for years now. They’ve had a bit of bad diplomacy with the people of Edom, who did not permit them to cross their country on the way to the Promised Land, and so now they’re taking the long way around. They grumble, against Moses and against God, and they complain about the manna, the food from heaven which they’ve receiving miraculously every morning for nearly forty years now. God seems to be a bit bad tempered as well, because he responds to their grumbling by sending fiery serpents to bite and afflict the whole ungrateful bunch. God tells Moses to craft a bronze serpent and raise it on a pole — so that anyone suffering from snakebite can come to it and look at it and be healed.
It’s a weird story, no question about it, especially since the Ten Commandments are fairly explicit about making no images. The brazen serpent appears again in the book of Kings. Apparently the people had kept it and treasured it long after they had entered the Promised Land. It held a special place in the temple, and they would burn incense before it. King Hezekiah, one of the last great kings before the exile, undertook various religious reforms and finally destroyed the brazen serpent, fearing it had led the people to idolatry at last.
In Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus it’s fairly clear that he’s referring to the healing properties of the snake: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” There’s something refreshing about the connection, at least to my mind. All that the people of Israel had to do was look at the serpent and they would be healed. No elaborate public displays of penitence, no sacrifice required; not even an apology or an admission of guilt. Just look at the serpent and be healed. Somehow the action itself was enough, the action itself contained all that might have been said and more.
There is certainly dramatic irony in play, and a painful one at that — having to look at the image of the thing that caused injury in order to be healed. But such a task also reminds them that the snakes were not the primary cause of their unhappiness, rather their own all consuming regard for themselves and their appetites, much as in the Garden of Eden, the serpent was only the vehicle of temptation and not the agent of the fall. Looking up at the bronze snake to be healed, away from the ground and away from their navels, in a sense points out their narcissism and restores a proper sense of perspective. Likewise for us to behold Jesus on the cross is to be reminded that his lordship is as victim, not as tyrant, and if there is anything wrong with this picture it is with ourselves who are so slow to recognize the victimizing power of our own misdeeds. But all this and all the inexhaustible more that might be said about the cross and about what happens there and about what good it does us, is contained and communicated in the simple act of looking up at it. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Just as the people of Israel were healed by looking at the serpent, so are you and I, by beholding the cross.
It’s an architectural way of making a very complicated and very beautiful theological point, which mingles the sign with the signified and liberates final religious meaning from priests and scholars and poets and restores it to anyone with a beating heart, who with humility and love yearns to be forgiven, to be healed, to be free.
Just look up, behold the cross, from whatever vantage point you possess, whatever you are feeling and wherever you find yourself. And in that action, behold the axis mundi, the central hinge of the whole world, both healing and mystifying us, in relation to which our lives make sense as being drawn to the very brink of heaven — but which loses all meaning the minute we make it serve our own ends; and more, in that moment it stands in judgment against us, for it was just such a self-seeking appropriation that led Jesus to be condemned in the first place.
The difficult thing about architectural points is that they are made silently, without words to interpret. Buildings are their own interpretation, speaking themselves to us as whatever life they are built to enable is lived out within them. So it is with the Church, the Sacraments, the Bible, Prayer, Doctrine, and the Cross. They exist not to be explained or defended or appropriated, but to enable a life in touch with God. Let them touch you, let them populate the landscape of your imagination. Look up from wherever you are to behold these mysteries on the horizon, and find God close at hand to help and to save.
This morning as we come to the foot of the cross above our own rood screen, and at the altar make our communions, may we find ourselves refreshed by the simplicity of our task, beholding the source of our healing and transported across time and space to the antechambers of Paradise: to that walled but un-gated garden where the serpent finally is crushed and death is no more, and the dead wood of the cross bears fruit for the healing of the nations.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.