27 March. Tuesday of Week 5 of Lent
Numbers 21:4ff. “Make a serpent, and set it on a pole; everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”
John 8:21ff. “When you have lifted up the Son of Man,” the truth will be finally revealed.
The Serpent and The Cross
The symbol of Israel’s sin, the seraph-serpent (the Hebrew “seraph” means “burning”), sent among them with a 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 offense, will be forgiven and cured by the Lord. Acknowledgment of sin purifies the mind and heart, for it exposes all phony excuses and calls evil by its right 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 provoked God’s righteous anger.
This bronze serpent had a somewhat murky history. Long before Moses cast this figure out of copper, the serpent was a popular figurine in Canaanite fertility rituals. Note that the serpent symbolized the devil in Genesis 3. Perhaps it was partially because of this pagan background that Moses’ bronze serpent became an object of false worship. It was, therefore, smashed and destroyed by King Hezekiah (2 Kgs 18:4).
How strange that the early church recognized in this symbol a sign of Jesus on the cross. Jesus crucified bore the full effects of our sins. St. Paul wrote: “For our sakes God made the sinless one to be sin, so that in him we might become the very holiness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). In the goodness, compassion and forgiveness of Jesus we recognize by contrast our own violent and harsh attitudes. This same image of Jesus on the cross portrays our human violence, but also reveals “the kindness and love of God our Saviour” (Tit 3:4).
While externally Jesus conforms to us, internally we are able to conform to him. This internal goodness forces the poison of our sinfulness out of our system – in the violence of the crucifixion – and at that moment we like Jesus belong to what is above. O Lord, hear my prayer, And let my cry come to you.
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 is pleasing to him.” As he was saying these things, many believed in him.