The power of the cross provides healing for our sinfulness
The question is universal, as well as timeless. Why do good people need to suffer? We all know what this means. A spouse suffers horribly from the effects of cancer while loved ones watch the once healthy body decay and waste away. A teen from a good, faith-filled family dies in a car crash. Small children succumb to a home fire, despite attempts from frantic parents, neighbors and fire fighters to free them from the house.
On a more global level, the nightly news brings us terrifying scenes of genocide, famine, war, disease and ruthless attacks on innocent people.
So we ask: “Why do good people need to suffer?”
We ask; we weep in frustration; we shake our fists at God, demanding an explanation, but deep down inside, we know the truth and that truth tells us we won’t find a definitive answer this side of the grave.
That’s why I found this weekend’s Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy so compelling. Why would we exalt that which is recognized as an instrument of torture for our Jesus? While the readings might not provide answers to all our questions on suffering, they do give us comforting insight.
In the first reading from the Book of Numbers (21:4b-9), we catch up with the Chosen People out in the desert. Their journey has been long and arduous. No air-conditioned coach buses with frequent bathroom and fast-food stops for these folks. Their impatience and anger toward God and Moses is showing.
“Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this retched food!”
Mind you, in previous chapters, God has provided manna from heaven and water from a rock. But the crowd’s displeasure grows. What have we done to deserve such suffering, they are asking?
In their rising anger, they fail to see all that God has provided. They fail to embrace God’s saving grace, his protection, his love for his children, his very presence. God might not be giving them what they want but he has always given them what they need. It’s there for the taking. However, like spoiled children, they repeatedly stomp their feet and howl in frustration: “Why me?”
Miracle after miracle has followed them, starting in Egypt, yet they fail to see, fail to trust. God hasn’t abandoned them; rather, their sinfulness is what distances them from God.
So God sends them the curse, but also the cure. Read on and we learn that the Lord inflicted the Chosen Ones with seraph serpents, which, of course, bit the people causing many to die. There’s nothing like a venomous snake bite (or the deathly poison of our sins) to turn one’s attention back to God. On behalf of the people, Moses once again implores God for mercy.
And, once again, God’s heart is filled with compassion. God tells Moses to craft a serpent and mount it on a pole. “…and if any who have been bitten look at it, they will live.” They look upon their curse, their sinfulness and are made well. The curse and the cure. They are healed of the effects of their sins.
Like the Chosen People, we fail to trust in God, finding it easier to fall into sin. Like the seraph serpent, Jesus was raised high on the cross and all who gaze upon that cross see their suffering – their own sinfulness, – take ownership of those sins and, as the Chosen People in the desert, are taken into God’s embrace to once again be forgiven and loved.
God might not give us what we want, such as taking a pass on suffering, but God always gives us what we need. The bad things in life pale in comparison to the power of the cross of Jesus. On that cross is where we need to keep our focus; there is where we find our healing. As the chosen people of God, that is why we exalt the Holy Cross.