The snake and the cross

Clergy in the diocese were on retreat for two days at the beginning of the week, and we gathered with the Bishop for a period of silence which concluded with the renewal of our ordination vows and the blessing of the oils of healing and Chrism for the coming year.

To aid our reflection, we had the privilege to hear one of the suffragan Bishops of the Diocese of Toronto, the Rt Revd Ryscilla Shaw, as our retreat speaker.

Bishop Shaw has Metis and settler family roots, and the topic of her talks was Reconciliation and Unity, with a focus on the relation between the church and people of the First Nations, Inuit and Metis in Canada.
Over the course of the two days, she took us on a journey of exploration and engagement with the spiritual traditions of the indigenous people that have lived on this land long before European settlers from Europe arrived on this continent in the 16th century.

We reflected on the Apologies for Spiritual harm caused by the church which our former Primate, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, delivered during our General Synod in 2019, and Bishop Shaw encouraged us to be curious, learn and engage, and recognise the many parallels between the spirituality of the people of the First Nations with our own, pointing to sacred teachings such as the Four Directions, the Medicine Wheel and the Seven grandfathers teachings of wisdom, love, respect, bravery, honesty, humility and truth.

We compared journeys of initiation with Jacob’s fight with the Angel; the Grandfathers teachings themes with Jesus’ sermon on the Mount of Beatitudes, words of encouragement and challenge. And we pondered on the ways in which Jesus’s radical ministry of inclusion is calling us to reconnect with all that is holy.

In the ways of the indigenous tradition, much of what we heard came in the form of stories to stir our imagination and our souls in ways that a lecture does not, just like Jesus’s parabols can allow us to access God’s purposes and insights in the most unexpected and surprising way.

The ongoing need for reconciliation in diversity took us into the realm of liberation theology, a way of focusing our approach to the Gospels on those who suffer, and on the words of the Magnificat – the prayer uttered by the pregnant Mary when she visited her cousin six month before giving birth.

Mary’s song is strongly influenced by the song of Hannah, the mother of Samuel after her own miraculous childbearing.
Its words depict a God who turns the world upside down: those who are powerless and weak are given pride of place while the powerful and wealthy trade places with them. Because God’s kingdom is one of justice and peace where all are called to live in equity – and balance needs to be reestablished.

‘Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God’
Following a decision from our Diocesan Synod last year, a number of people in the diocese – lay and ordained – have also in the past two weeks been taking part in a course helping us to reflect on racism and issues of privilege and power – how they affect us as individuals, how they affect our common life, how they affect the ways in which we share and witness to our faith.

We cannot pretend that issues such as imbalance of power, White Supremacy, racism, only happen out there and we have no part in it. These issues also arise within our communities and within ourselves, and we are called to examine ourselves, confront our own prejudices and bias, and work to be more Christ-like in our radical welcome of all.
The Hebrew bible has many accounts of power imbalances and of the ways in which God has intervened over time to save a singular people in a particular place. The divine task is not made easy by a people with short memories and who, in adversity, have a tendency to remember all the good things they had rather than the promise of a better future.
Today’s story of the Israelites in their continued exile is a case in point. Led by Moses out of captivity, they are made restless by a long journey lacking the relative comforts of their lives as slaves, including the predictability of food and shelter.

They are not content with the manna that God is showering on them daily for food, and can’t stop themselves from whining. Starting to lose patience, God sends a sever punishment in the form of deadly serpents, but when the people repents, God provides an antidote in the form of a large scale snake shaped amulet to cure those who are bitten.
We could wonder why God did not simply remove the snakes altogether, and perhaps there had to be an intentionality in those seeking healing to look up at the Snake on the Pole, acknowledging the power of God and remembering God’s power.

For us who read this story on the other side of the Resurrection, there is a parallel between the image of the Snake attached to the pole and that of Jesus hanging on the Cross. Because of humanity’s constant disobedience, God acted again in history and sent Jesus to remind us of God’s love – in this case not a killer snake but instead a teacher, a healer, a preacher, someone grounded in community who could model God intention to a world continually seeking for divine Love.

This did not suffice to change the hearts of many – too focused on exploiting and making a profit off the back of the stranger, the widow, the orphan, those without power.

The cross of shame on which Jesus died was the consequence of all that self-centredness and selfishness of the people, unable in the end to accept that all are loved by God regardless of human laws, unable to make the changes necessary to make the world a place where all could be included as siblings under God.

Like the Israelites in Exodus bitten by snakes, Christians turn to look at the Cross at their times of need, at their times of shame, at their times of death, to remember that there is Redemptive Love which continues to heal us and bring us back into the fold, if we will look up and see.

In the letter to the Ephesians, the writer reminds us that the grace we receive is not compensation for what we do, however worthy we think might be, but simply a gift of love from God. A gift showered not only on us, but also on all of humanity.

Our colonial history shows how the cross was used as a tool of coercion and oppression, rather than a life giving way of expanding the Kingdom to include all. For lack of imagination and driven by greed, we have dismissed out of hand the experience of God of other cultures and other peoples, and in the process have defiled the Grace that we were supposed to share.

As we continue our journey of self-exploration this Lent, let us pray that as we encounter the Cross on Good Friday, each and everyone of us may be enfolded in the arms of the dying Christ, that we may grow in his love not fearful of what we don’t know, but instead open to ever new revelations of our unity in diversity in this world and the next.
Amen

BDO

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