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A Reflection for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

Crux Est Mundi Medicina


When I worked at Holy Cross Monastery (West Park, NY) in the late 80's and early 90's, my desk (in what is now the gift shop) faced a window looking across the driveway to the entrance to the Guesthouse. Many times a day I read the words carved above the door: "Crux est Mundi Medicina" (The Cross is the Medicine of the World). I particularly needed healing at that time in my life, and I gazed upon the text like the desperate Israelites surrounded by poisonous snakes, looked upon the brazen serpent lifted up upon the pole (Numbers 21:4-9).

John's Gospel takes the brazen serpent as a prefiguring, or "type" for the lifting up of Jesus on the life-saving cross…



Gaze On Christ Crucified


Meanwhile brethren, that we may be healed from sin, let us now gaze on Christ crucified; for "as Moses," saith He, "lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth on Him may not perish, but have everlasting life." Just as they who looked on that serpent perished not by the serpent’s bites, so they who look in faith on Christ’s death are healed from the bites of sins.


- Augustine 354-430

Tractate XII ch.3 Homilies on the Gospel of John


Our Lenten Journey


Christ was tempted in the desert; and if you are to put on his nature, you must go through his Journey, from the Incarnation to the Ascension. And though you are neither able nor expected to be able to do what he did, still you must enter wholly into his Process, and die continually to sin. For Sophia (Wisdom) is wed to the soul only through that quality which springs up in the soul through the death of Christ. Then it flowers as a new plant in Eternity.

(-Jacob Boehme 1575-1624)


Jacob Boehme nails it, I think, when he says, “If you are to put on his nature, you must go through his Journey, from the Incarnation to the Ascension. And though you are neither able nor expected to be able to do what he did, still you must enter wholly into his Process …”


I think most of us do everything we can, unconsciously, mostly, to detach ourselves from The Story and stand by, observing from a safe distance. But the point of The Story is this: the Christ event was not a bittersweet event long ago that we reenact liturgically and aesthetically to settle some faint longing within. The Story is a template of our own innermost truth. To live we must die.


But Boehme is gentle. While he says “You are neither able nor expected to be able to do what he did...” something is expected. Something unique that is mine and yours – our own response in our own times in our own situations to the call of God to be fully human and to come to consciousness as best we can in this world.


The world is harsh. Phyllis Tickle writes: “And what the story recognizes is that all of us are going to be bitten—painfully bitten—in this life. Most of us learn that truth fairly quickly just from experience. But, according to the story, it is not the being bitten that we in this imperfect world can do anything about; it is only the how we respond to being bitten that we can control. When we look up, usually we are saved by that very act of faith for it is when we look down and struggle with what is tormenting us that we most often empower it by the very attention we are going to give it.”


[“A Serpent in the Desert”]

I have been overpowered by the sting from time to time. But what comfort I take in the image in the poem of the 6th Century Hymn writer Romanos The Melodist who sings of making a nest in the tree of life:


In his hymn The Devil speaks:


Now then, Hades, mourn

And I join in unison with you in wailing.

Let us lament as we see

The tree which we planted

Changed into a holy trunk.

Robbers, murderers, tax gatherers, harlots,

Rest beneath it, and make nests

In its branches

In order that they might gather

The fruit of sweetness

From the supposedly sterile wood.

For they cling to the cross as the tree of life.


(Adapted from "Mundi Medicina" The Edge of The Enclosure – Suzanne Guthrie)

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