I hated taking medicine as a child. Mom or Dad would pull me aside — usually disrupting some great shootout, or a climactic battle in the epic struggle between ninjas and samurai — to pour a large spoonful of some syrupy remedy and then slip it in my mouth. Sure, the manufacturer took care to mask it with a sugary flavor (usually orange), but there was always something off about the taste. I unveiled that mystery when I once mistook an adult aspirin for a chewable one. Not a pleasant memory. In whatever way it comes, medicine always seems to bear some bitterness.
This Sunday, the Israelites are punished for their ingratitude and their rejection of God’s grace. Serpents were sent among them, “which bit the people.” Certainly this is a chastisement, but we might also consider it a remedy. The illness of the people was their hard hearts, a deeply rooted affliction calling for some extreme intervention. The medicine was bitter at first (those bites sting), but it brought them to the sweetness of repentance, the health and joy of renewed communion. Of course, God did not leave them without healing. Looking upon a bronze serpent, they were restored. This God, whom they doubted, thereby proved his power again; for only he can make the serpent a force of death and of life. He will do the same with the Cross.
Medicine often repulses us. We naturally incline away from the suffering it can bring. But once received, its bitterness passing, it gradually works within us, restoring us to health. The same is true of the Cross. When we hear St. Paul’s hymn this weekend, wherein he sings of the humility and surrender of Christ, we should remember that Paul begins his song by urging us to “have among yourselves the same attitude” (Phil 2:5). The Cross is bitter. But when, like Jesus, we take it up willingly, a medicine gets into us. That medicine is Christ. By accepting our crosses with the attitude of Jesus, Jesus gets into us, working deep healing in the soul. It may start bitter, but it ends sweet.
It is funny that at the age of seven or eight, I was well accustomed to feeding myself, but when it came to medication, my parents always administered it themselves. In any other circumstance, I would hold the spoon; but not if it contained cough syrup or NyQuil. So it is with the healing of the world. Our Father administers the remedy: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” The spoon is the Cross. When we accept it in our lives, along with its bitterness, it brings about the sweetest healing.