Tuesday in the Fifth Week of Lent
Numbers 21:4ff. The healing power of that emblematic bronze serpent, lifted high on a pole: the sight of it helped those who were bitten to survive.
John 8:21ff. Jesus anticipates his crucifixion: “When you have lifted up the Son of Man,” the truth about salvation will finally be revealed.
The Serpent And The Cross
The symbol of Israel’s sin, the saraph serpent (the Hebrew word saraph means burning), which threatened them with its poisonous bite, is transformed into an instrument of salvation. Moses made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole, so that all who look upon it with an honest admission of their sin and sincere sorrow for their offenses, will be forgiven by the Lord. Such contrition purifies the mind and heart, for it exposes and eliminates all false reasons and phony excuses and calls evil-doing by its proper name sin. The people admit that their sin brought sorrow and death, that their grumbling was destructive, and that their waste of food or contempt for it called down God’s righteous anger.
This use of a bronze serpent had a somewhat devious history. Long before Moses cast this figure into a statue, the serpent was a popular idol or figurine in the Canaanite fertility ritual. We may note how the serpent symbolized the devil in Genesis 3; and it may be because of this pagan background that Moses’ bronze serpent later became an object of false worship. It was, therefore, publicly smashed and destroyed by King Hezekiah (2 Kgs 18:4).
Some in the early church recognized in this symbol a sign of Jesus on the cross. Jesus crucified shows the full effects of human sin. He becomes one with us even in our sins and guilt; yet all the while he preserves his goodness, peace and godliness, and so a source of healing for us..
St. Paul wrote: “For our sakes God made him [Jesus] who knew no sin, to become sin, so that in him we might become the very holiness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). Contemplating the goodness, compassion, mercy and forgiveness of Jesus we recognize by contrast our own violent and harsh attitude. This same image of Jesus on the cross not only portrays our personal and community violence, but it also reveals the kindness and love of God our Saviour (Tit 3:4).
Like the serpent lifted up by Moses, likewise Jesus crucified, lifted up by our sins and those of all the world, calls us to reject godless ways and worldly desires, as we await our blessed hope. While externally Jesus conforms to us, internally we are to conform to him. This internal goodness forces the poison of our sinfulness out of us – in the violent and hideous form of crucifixion – and at that moment we, like Jesus, belong to what is above, our true identity as children of God.
First Reading: Numbers 21:4-9
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
Gospel: John 8:21-30
Again he said to them, “I am going away, and you will search for me, but you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.” Then the Jews said, “Is he going to kill himself? Is that what he means by saying, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’?” He said to them, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he.” They said to him, “Who are you?” Jesus said to them, “Why do I speak to you at all? I have much to say about you and much to condemn; but the one who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.” They did not understand that he was speaking to them about the Father. So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me. And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what ispleasing to him.” As he was saying these things, many believed in him.