Friday, May 29, 2009

3-22-2009: 4th Lent (B)

2 Chronicles 36:14-16,19-23/Psalm 137/Ephesians 2:4-10/John 3:14-21
Medicine seems to have made another breakthrough last week when it was announced that trials involving children with severe, life-threatening peanut allergies had proved remarkably effective in eliminating the allergy altogether. Was it a miracle drug or some kind of genetic manipulation? Nothing so extraordinary: doctors simply exposed these children to the very thing that threatened to kill them – peanuts. By eating peanuts in very small amounts over an extended period of time, these children rid themselves of the allergy. That old wives’ tale about “taking a bite of the hair of the dog that bit you” seems to find a resonance in nature. After all, it’s the same principle underlying the ‘cure’ for smallpox, polio and other once life-threatening diseases. A vaccine, essentially made up of the very stuff that threatens to kill you, helps build immunity to the disease by infecting you with it.

Perhaps the same principle lies at the heart of the spiritual life as well. The gospel alludes to the story of the Hebrews’ forty-year sojourn in the desert when the people were being bitten by poisonous snakes. God tells Moses to place a bronze serpent on a pole. When those bitten by the poisonous snakes look at the bronze serpent, they survive. Making a connection between the bronze serpent on the pole and Christ on the cross would raise a few eyebrows and probably elicit cries of sacrilege but for the fact that it’s the gospel which makes the uncanny equivalence and not some radical theologian – or off-beat artist. The cross then might be likened to a vaccine – conveying the darkness of death in order to help you overcome it. John Paul II once wrote that divine mercy always enters the world in the form of a cross. It’s not coincidence that the words mercy and misery are cognate. On some profound level they are always in intimate conversation.

Carl Jung was no doubt suggesting all this when he discovered the shadow self -- that place within each person where powerful emotion and impulse reside, a part of us we are at first ashamed and of which we fear. But wholeness (and holiness), health (and salvation), are found when we cease to run away from that frightening part of our selves and embrace that shadow self -- that bronze serpent, that slithering snake, that which we want to crucify and reject -- the harsh truth that misery and mercy are always seeking a heart-to-heart, that divine mercy enters the world in the frightening form of a cross.

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