Once, in Israel’s wilderness wanderings, Moses put a bronze serpent on a pole and lifted it up for the healing of God’s people. Why does Jesus compare Himself to that serpent?
Gospel (Read Jn 3:14-21)
Today, we read the last part of a conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus, a Pharisee who had come to Him at night to talk. Most Pharisees were suspicious and contemptuous of Jesus, but not Nicodemus. He recognized Him as “a teacher from God” because of the miraculous works He did (see Jn 3:2). Jesus understood right away what this man was looking for, so He began a discussion with him about the need to be “born anew” to enter the kingdom of God (Jn 3:3). This completely baffled Nicodemus, of course, because he knew a person cannot re-enter the womb for a second birth. Jesus pressed the point: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5). When Nicodemus continued to struggle with this idea, it was Jesus’ turn to be baffled: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this?” (Jn 3:10)
Why did Jesus expect Nicodemus to understand that only a radical action like re-birth could enable a man to enter God’s kingdom? What was it in Israel’s history that should have prepared Nicodemus for this? Today’s reading gives us a clue.
To help him understand the need for re-birth, Jesus reminds Nicodemus of a time during Israel’s journey from Egypt to the Promised Land when the people bitterly complained about lack of food and water, calling the manna God provided “worthless food” (read Num 21:1-9). To punish them, God sent “fiery serpents” among the people; many of those bitten died. The people repented of their sin of ingratitude and lack of faith, so Moses asked God to remove the serpents. Instead, God told Moses to make a bronze serpent, lift it onto a pole, and have anyone bitten look at it to be healed. Doesn’t this seem odd? Why would God ask this of the people? Why wouldn’t He simply remove all the snakes so no one would get bitten instead of asking the sick to gaze at a copy of the very creature they dreaded, the one through whom so much death came?
We can only speculate here, because God didn’t explain His reasons to Moses. What are the possibilities? Did God want the people to participate in their own healing by the act of faith it would require of them, after having refused to live by faith when the food and water ran short? It certainly took faith for anyone bitten by a deadly snake to believe that simply by looking at a bronze serpent “lifted up” on a pole, he would be healed. Did God want to remind the people that the snakes only appeared because of their ingratitude and complaining—was the serpent meant to be a reminder of their sin, as well as their source of healing? Did seeing a life-giving serpent take them back to Eden, when a death-dealing serpent caused men to lose the life God had for them? Are all of these a part of the explanation of the strange event in the wilderness?
Let us now return to Jesus’ last words to Nicodemus. Remember that Jesus thought anyone well-schooled in Israel’s history ought to understand that man’s problem with entering the kingdom of God is man himself. What is to be done with men who, as a result of Adam’s disobedience, are born into sin? Even “sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the Law, the worship, and the promises” (see Rom 9:4) that God gave to His beloved Israel did not enable them to keep faith with Him. They had been bitten by the serpent’s victory over Adam. They were sick unto death. The only healing for this poisonous bite was a completely new life, a re-birth. How would that happen?
Jesus had to be “lifted up” onto the Cross. He had to die the death the serpent’s bite caused, although He Himself had not been bitten. He took the poison for us. Out of His love for the world, God sent His Son to save us from sure death. In Moses’ day, the people had to look at the creature who had poisoned them and believe that God would heal them. Now, we must look at Jesus on the Cross, a human being, a man just like the one through whom the poison of the serpent in Eden spread to the whole human race, and believe we will be healed by the re-birth we so desperately need. When the people saw the serpent in the wilderness, it reminded them of their disobedience. When we see Jesus on the Cross, it reminds us of the gravity of our sin. We can see so clearly that it requires judgment and that death is its just punishment. When Jesus was “lifted up” out of death and then “lifted up” to Heaven at the Ascension, we know that our debt has been paid. We die with Jesus, in baptism, and yet we live (“born of water and the Spirit”).
Slowly, we can begin to realize how effectively the episode in the wilderness foreshadowed Jesus being “lifted up” for us. In case we don’t, St. John gives us an explanation of what Jesus came to do. Jesus is God’s healing for us. Those who reject Him remain sick with the serpent’s poison from Eden—they remain full of death (“whoever does not believe has already been condemned”). The Son of God crucified on the Cross makes explicit what St. John tells us: “The light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil.” Those who look at Jesus lifted up and believe He is their only hope for forgiveness and new life come “to the light.” They are born anew into eternal life. As a result, their “works may be clearly seen as done in God.”
Did we realize there is so much to “see” when we gaze at Jesus “lifted up”?
Possible response: Lord Jesus, during Lent I often look at You lifted up on the Cross. Help me to see Your victory and Your love there. Help me to live as if I understand it.
First Reading (Read 2 Chron 36:14-16, 19-23)
This reading helps us see that God’s punishments are always provoked by man’s disobedience and covenant infidelity, but they also always hold within them the promise of hope. The reason for that is God’s great, unquenchable love for us. Even in the wilderness, God’s punishment with the “fiery serpent” was meant to teach His people that their happiness lay in faith, not grumbling and ingratitude. When they repented and believed God, they were healed.
Our reading tells us the sad story of the decline of “all the princes of Judah, the priests, and the people” into great decadence. “Early and often” God sent prophets to call the people back to their covenant with Him, because He had compassion on them. They refused to listen, so when there was “no remedy,” God allowed the Babylonians to attack Jerusalem, destroy the Temple, and carry the inhabitants off into exile. However, Jeremiah, the prophet whose dire warnings of impending judgment are among the darkest writings in Scripture, held out a flicker of hope after the chastisement: “Until the land has retrieved its lost Sabbaths, during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest while the seventy years are fulfilled.” The Exile would not last forever. When the punishment had served its purpose, which was to make the people realize what they had lost and to resolve to cherish their covenant with God more deeply, it ended. The LORD stirred Cyrus, king of Persia (who had conquered Babylon) to allow the Jews to return to Judah. He even gave them help to rebuild the Temple. All was not lost!
Here we have one of the most important lessons we can learn from the Old Testament: God’s punishments have a purpose. They come from His love, not His hatred. The chastisement of the serpents in the wilderness taught the people to trust in God. The chastisement of Jesus on the Cross teaches us that through death—His and our own—comes new life. It’s a lesson we can take to heart in our Lenten journey to Easter.
Possible response: Heavenly Father, help me not to fear Your chastisement. Help me look for the signs of Your love that are always there.
Psalm (Read Ps 137:1-6)
Our psalm is a haunting, poetic expression of what happened to the Jews in the Exile: “By the streams of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” Whey they lost everything, they realized what mattered most—their covenant with God—even though they had been indifferent and unfaithful to it when they lived in the Promised Land. Finally, after so much disobedience, the “death” of the Exile clarified for them their true love: “May my tongue cleave to my palate if I remember you not, if I place not Jerusalem ahead of my joy.” Their captors taunted them, ridiculing their former glory: “Sing for us the songs of Zion!” Stung that way, they profoundly understood what had happened to them: “How could we sing a song of the LORD in a foreign land?” They experienced what all of us do in times of chastisement—deep regret over our indifference to what matters most in life. The psalmist gives us a fitting prayer for Lent: “Let my tongue be silenced, if I ever forget You.”
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to our other readings. Read it again prayerfully to make it your own.
Second Reading (Read Eph 2:4-10)
St. Paul gives us a sweeping, almost cosmic description of what St. John meant in his simple words: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son.” He emphasizes that “God, Who is rich in mercy, because of the great love He had for us,” has reached down to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. In fact, “when we were dead in our transgressions, [He] brought us to life with Christ Jesus.” We can’t be any more helpless to fix ourselves than when we are “dead.” When Israel was “dead” in the wilderness, bitten by poisonous snakes, God healed them. When the Jews were “dead” in Exile, God restored them. When Jesus was “dead” in the punishment of our sin, God raised Him up to new Life. Then, most gloriously, St. Paul says that when God “raised” Jesus up to heaven, He took us with Him! How can this be?
We don’t fully understand this mystery, of course, but there is no denying that St. Paul says it is true. Jesus has taken our humanity into heaven as a foretaste of the future “immeasurable riches of His grace” He wishes to lavish on us. Our faith—our trust in all that God has done for us—is the gift of God that saves us. We were not able to do anything to earn it. The gift of faith enables us to believe in the goodness of God and to come to the light, as St. John says, so we can do “the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.”
During Lent, we need these occasional flashes of the pure (and largely unimaginable) glory that awaits us as we press on toward the goal of eternal life. Yet, we must remember that the vision of glory begins with seeing Jesus “lifted up” like the serpent in the desert, a gaze into the heart of God’s greatest reversal.
Possible response: Heavenly Father, today help me choose to live the good works that are my daily bread from You.
image: Orcagna [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons