March 31st, 2020
There’s a similar point in both of today’s readings, the Book of Numbers in the Old Testament and the Gospel of John in the New Testament. It’s one not difficult to understand. It’s “we must have faith and trust in the Lord”. It’s very true today in this worldwide Corona virus pandemic we find ourselves. We are in an invisible battle with the virus, we can’t see it, can’t touch it, but it’s there! Kind of like the battle we are in with the Devil tempting us.
Let me explain the first reading: The Israelites were in the middle of their 40 year wondering in the desert after Moses lead them out of slavery in Egypt. The people continued to complain against Moses, this time because they have to go around the town of Edom. Edom is a town in Araba where copper mines from the 13th Century BC were located.
But their protest is also directed against God. When they are punished for saying “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in this wilderness. For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food”. Today’s scripture tells us for their lack of faith and trust in the Lord they are punished. The Lord sent fiery serpents, snakes, and they bit the people, so that many of Israel died.
So the people went to Moses and confessed thay had sinned and begged Moses to pray to the Lord for them. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten when he sees it, shall live.”
In the town of “Timna” in the region of Araba there is an Egyptian shrine that has been unearthed which contained a copper serpent. Some believe this to be the area where today’s scripture took place.
This passage in Numbers is interpreted further in the Book of Wisdom by King Solomon, Chapter 16 titled “Serpents in the Desert”.
“and they were being destroyed by the bites of writhing serpents; they were troubled for a little while as a warning, and received a symbol of deliverance to remind them of your law’s command. For the one who turned toward it was saved, not by the thing that was beheld, but by you, the Savior of all.” Again, “But your children were not conquered even by the fangs of venomous serpents, for your mercy came to their help and healed them.”
Let’s break this down: They sinned, and then they confessed their sins to Moses. Then Moses followed the Lord’s instruction to erect a fiery serpent on a pole, and for their penance when bitten they were to go and look and the symbol and have faith and trust in the Lord and they were healed.
The Wisdom passage I just quoted emphasized that it was not the bronze serpent that cured them but the Mercy of the Lord. The serpent was a symbol of the healing salvation which God offers all men.
That brings me to the Gospel of Johns today. Let me set the scene for you. The Scribes, the Pharisees, the Chief Priest and authorities all reject Jesus as the Messiah, the coming of the Christ. Jesus warns them that he will leave them and go back Heaven with the Father and the Spirit from which he came from and they will live on in their sins looking for the coming Messiah, but will never find him because they don’t believe he is the one. Even after seeing the signs and wonders he performed they kept asking him “who are you”?
Jesus says “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he”. Jesus is referring to his being lifted up on the cross. He is referring to his passion, his crucifixion and death on the cross, and of his resurrection from the dead on the third day, his ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit when thousands will believe he is the Messiah, then and only then will they, the authorities realize that Jesus was the coming Messiah.
This is Chapter 8 of John’s Gospel but back in Chapter 3 when Nicodemus one of the 72 Sanhedrin came to Jesus he instructed him as to why he is the Messiah in saying “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life”.
So in closing the symbol of the copper serpent on a pole was a “prefigurement of Jesus being lifted up on a cross to die”. Both were symbols of the healing mercy of the Lord. What is the symbol of the Medical profession of today? Something very similar of the healing serpent Moses lifted up on the pole. What do you see in the front of all Catholic Churches? The Crucifix, the symbol of the mercy and love of Christ, our salvation, our redemption.
In closing, sometimes Catholics are ask “why do you have a crucified corpus of Christ on the cross, our Christ has been resurrected and is alive”? Catholic’s believe Christ has been resurrected and is alive also. But what would have happened if Moses said I’m not going to put the copper serpent on the pole I’m just going to erect a pole. It would not have had the same effect would it? The crucifix has the effect of Catholic’s remembering the suffering and death of our Messiah on the cross. Jesus said at his last supper to “Do this in remembrance of me”. Of his suffering and death on the cross, proving his love for us. We memorialize his passion, death and resurrection at each Mass.
So let us remember during this Coronavirus pandemic, we are all in this together and we will pull through it together. Let’s gaze on our crucifix and have faith and trust in the Lord, he is in control, and he is always with us, and he loves each and every one of us.
The crucifix, it is a symbol of sacrifice yes, but also a symbol of healing, a symbol of mercy and a symbol of love.