Christ, Physician of the Soul
Posted on by Ms. Anne Rapkin
Ash Wednesday, February 26, 2020
Some years ago, I made my first visit to Holy Cross Monastery, a community of Episcopal brothers in upstate New York. I was interested to see, carved over the main entrance to the old stone monastery, these words: “Crux est mundi medicina”, Latin for “the cross is the medicine of the world”.
I was struck by this statement, one I had never heard before. But upon reflection, I thought of Jesus’s words in a passage of Matthew found a few chapters further on from today’s reading: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but rather those who are sick.” What sickness was Jesus referring to here? Jesus said further: “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Mt 9:12-13) In other words, the sickness Jesus came to treat is human sinfulness. Thus, as the words at Holy Cross state, Jesus is the mundi medicina, the medicine of the world, our Physician of Souls.
Lent is not a biblical season or biblical requirement. The New Testament does not speak of Lent. Lent is a gift to us from the Church, intended to provide us an opportunity, in the company of our brothers and sisters, to be healed of our sickness so that we may fully participate in the coming weeks in Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection. During Lent we invite the Physician of Souls into our lives so that we may be restored to health.
Why do we inaugurate Lent with ashes? After all, ashes are typically associated not with health, but with death, and, indeed, many people think that we receive ashes at the start of Lent to remind us that we will die. From time immemorial, ashes have also been a sign of grief and mourning for loved ones lost, and they continue to serve that function in some cultures today. In the Hebrew Bible, covering one’s head with ashes was intended to demonstrate to God that an individual or community abhorred their sins and sincerely repented of them. Covering the head with ashes, like wearing sackcloth, was also an attempt to an avert divine retribution or other catastrophe.
It is relevant, I think, to recall that in the Hebrew Bible, in the Book of Numbers, God gave His people a means of using ashes to purify themselves of sin. A healthy red heifer, a one-year-old cow, was to be slaughtered and burned entirely to ashes, the ashes then mixed with water, and the mixture put aside for use by the people as “a water for impurity, a sin offering.” (Num. 19) This ritual, archaic and unused today (if it ever was used), nevertheless suggests that ashes are a means, or at least part of the process, of healing ourselves of sin.
In any event, on this, the first day of Lent, ashes continue to have many primal meanings for us. They represent our mortality, the fleeting nature of our earthly lives and the decay of the body back into the dust from which we are created. As a reminder of death, ashes impress upon us the urgency of getting our spiritual houses in order while time remains to us. And ashes also signify repentance for our sins, and the sincerity of our sorrow over them.
For me, the fundamental meaning of ashes at Lent is humility. Deep humility is required to acknowledge the sins we commit against our neighbor and against ourselves. Deep humility is needed to acknowledge our frailness; our ignorance; our powerlessness against illness, disability, the ravages of aging, and the myriad other losses that life inevitably inflicts. And most of all, deep humility is required to acknowledge our need for God, for we sorely need God if we are to bear such losses with equanimity and to rise above what is unworthy in ourselves.
So, at this holy season, we acknowledge to ourselves and to God that we are sick with sin:
For we do not strive to be all we could be.
We crave the admiration of other people, instead of making our own decisions based on the values Scripture teaches us.
We are prisoners of social conventions, even when those conventions depart from the values reflected in Scripture and from our own deep and certain perception of right and wrong.
We brood over past mistakes. We brood over wounds that others have dealt us. We nurse our anger.
When we give charity to the sick and impoverished, we do so in order that, as Jesus put it, we may be praised by others.
We are impatient with those we love most. We are insensitive to the feelings of others.
We persist in bad habits, unwilling to marshal the inner resources that change requires.
We judge others for what we consider their limitations. We assume that we know what’s right for others.
We envy other people their accomplishments, their native gifts, their financial or professional successes.
We are stingy with praise and other words of appreciation.
We are insincerely modest about our talents and admirable qualities.
We begrudge the money or effort we give to those in need, while at the same time we overindulge ourselves. We eat and drink more than we need, we buy more clothes, more furnishings, more trinkets than we need. We are greedy for the material things that our society considers valuable. We fill up our lives with stuff without considering how the manufacture and distribution of that stuff damages vulnerable communities and this irreplaceable Earth.
We sin not only in our relations with others but in our treatment of ourselves. We flay ourselves with guilt and shame over things that cannot be changed. We judge ourselves without compassion. We do not love ourselves as we try to love our neighbors.
Each and every one of us commits these sins. Look around you and know that not only you, but everyone, is sick in just these ways and others. For we are all human. We are all dust, all weak and lost and needy. That is why we gather here together today, as a body--because we all need the medicine that the Church offers us at this time of year.
In love and in compassion, Jesus came for us, who are sick in our souls. He came to assure us that we can change. He came to assure us that the disorders of our souls do not have to define us; that there is healing for those who seek it and pursue it; that if we are humble, and honest, he, the Soul Physician, our comforter and our redeemer, will help us redeem ourselves from the unworthier aspects of our characters.
Let me observe, from hard personal experience, that the divine medicine does not work overnight. There are very few miracles when it comes to self-improvement. Jesus’s cure is not as simple as “take two aspirins and get some rest.” Genuine commitment and dogged perseverance on our part are imperative. But Jesus will be there to encourage us, to give us strength, to be a comfort in our pain and to enlighten our path when it seems impenetrably dark. Crux est mundi medicina. The cross is the medicine of the world.
May God grant us all a holy and healing Lent. Amen.