I Corinthians 2:2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
In the 15th chapter of the book of Exodus we are given a profound foretaste of the power of the cross and it workings in the spiritual life. The setting is the immediate aftermath of the passing through the Red Sea and the miraculous saving intervention of God destroying the enemies of Israel and His glorious triumph. Moses and the Israelites sing the first song recorded in the narrative of the Biblical text. They sing of His glory. They sing of His grandeur. He is painted as a warrior who has utter control. There is no possible opposition to His power. The enemies of God and His chosen are in terror and dread and “because of the greatness of thy arm, they are as still as a stone.” (Ex 15:16). Later on in the chapter Miriam, the first prophetess, also sings with the women a shorter song proclaiming His glory and His power.
Nevertheless, 3 days later in the narrative the Israelites begin to feel thirsty and start to panic. When they finally find water it is undrinkable because of its bitterness. This leads them to question the motives of their great and powerful God. “And the people murmured against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” (15:24) Their complaint becomes more explicit further on in chapter 16:
Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger. (16:3)
In 17: once more they murmur:
“Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?”
What fascinated me so much when I read and reflected upon this passage was that the Israelites never questioned God’s ability of provide or even whether He was in control. They certainly didn’t question His existence. They had seen and marveled at His powerful intervention in their lives but then once it was missing they lost confidence that He cared for them. They knew He was a God of armies with a strong arm yet their question and complaint was one I have struggled with often in the bitter disappointments and regrets of my own life. They begin to doubt whether this saving, terrible God was for them. They question whether He cared for them, whether He had the best in mind for them. I remember asking these same questions to God when we lost Ezekiel our 2nd year of mission. “Why did You bring us out here to Mexico to kill my children? I have wrestled with these types of questions off and on many times when my kids have been sick or the mission seems fruitless and hard. Sure God CAN work miracles in my life He CAN do all things, He CAN heal me etc. But does He really want to? Has He tired of my weaknesses and failures?
My faith has often failed me as did the chosen people’s in accepting that God, so glorious, so powerful, could possibly be so interested in me. “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Ps 8:4) I too have complained bitterly before the Lord of His apparent neglect of me and my own. I too have asked Him if He brought us into missions to kill us off. I too have drunk of the bitter waters and murmured against His goodness.
In Exodus 15:15 is says “And he cried to the Lord; and the Lord showed him a tree, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.” God pointed out the tree and through the tree He made the bitterness sweet. I read that story yesterday before the blessed sacrament and I began to weep because I could hear Him saying to me, “Son, I have also given you a tree. I have bound myself to it as an eternal pledge of my love for you. You are precious in my eyes. You and your family.”
The same tree that made all bitter things sweet was the God-Man’s greatest bitterness. I starred up at the crucifix next to the tabernacle. I saw Jesus hanging there, thirsting for me:
Jesus thirsts; his asking arises from the depths of God’s desire for us. Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him. (CCC 2960)
In the cross the God-Man bound Himself inseparably to our suffering and bitterness. Saint John Paul II writes that the cross throws “a new light upon every suffering; the light of salvation.” (Salvifici Doloris 14) His sufferings make our sufferings sweet because the most important question for me about the bitterness and suffering in my life is not why it happens but rather whether God is with me in the pain and bitterness. Whether He feels my pain and knows what it is like, whether He identifies with my suffering. I heard God speaking to me pointing out the tree of the cross and saying “I have bound myself to you and to your suffering to make your suffering sweeter”.
Saint Paul writes, “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8:31). I need to believe that God is on my side, is by my side. To believe that HE ONLY GIVES ME THE VERY BEST. Nothing has so destroyed my image of God as the loss of my precious son. Before His death I too was so impressed by His power and provision. I wanted this power. I wanted to be strong. Yet “when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:10)
I have come to treasure so much more the beauty of the cross. The cross is the proof that HE IS FOR ME, FOR US, FOR MY FAMILY. I can have peace only when I trust in His enduring love for me. In the deserts of my own life when I have tasted the bitterness of suffering I have heard His voice say to me: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28) Like John the beloved disciple “I have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us.” (I John 4:16)
Pope Benedict writes:
We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words, the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. Saint John’s Gospel describes that event in these words: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should … have eternal life” (3:16).
This is the bedrock of the Gospel message for the world, the entire message we proclaim as missionaries. God is for us. Ever since the fall we have lived with the lurking fear that steals our peace “What if He is against me? What if He won’t come through for me? What if He wants to destroy me or my own?” I have hidden so many times from my God as He walked in the gardens of my heart. Yet the goodness of the Gospel we preach is that He is for us. In the encouraging words of Pope Francis:
On the lips of the catechist the first proclamation must ring out over and over: “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.” This first proclamation is called “first” not because it exists at the beginning and can then be forgotten or replaced by other more important things. It is first in a qualitative sense because it is the principal proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another throughout the process of catechesis, at every level and moment. (Evangelii Gaudium 164)