Exaltation of the Holy Cross

B232: What is this business about “looking at the bronze serpent” and living (Nm 21:4-9), after having been bitten by the poisonous serpent? Is this superstition?

All three of today’s readings are about Trust, among other things, and what happens when we fail to trust. The people in the desert were starting to complain, which is a clear sign of a lack of trust. So they were punished to “get their attention” – this was a salvific call to conversion and to change their attitude and behavior. To measure their trust, they had to look – with trust in God’s promises – at the “most unlikely” source of their salvation, a serpent lifted up on a pole. It was not the serpent but the trust in God that was the focal point. Only if they trusted in those promises would they be saved.

In the second reading (Phil 2:6-11) we have another “most unlikely” source of salvation – a humbled, obedient human being called Jesus. He gave us an example of complete trust – he trusted that his Father in heaven would accept his humble sacrifice of Self on behalf of others who trusted in him – and he, too, was lifted up on a pole. Because of this, that very cross became the sign of his exaltation!

Finally, the gospel brings it all together in crystal clear language. Whoever believes and trusts in this Son of Man lifted up on a pole, a cross, would be saved. This pole or tree was the source of Jesus’ exaltation, and was and is the source of our salvation, our bridge and entrance to eternal life. But only if we trust and believe!

KNOW YOUR CATECHISM! Have you ever thought about what your “impatience” may be costing you? Learn to have the patience of the persistent widow (Lk 18:1-8) (CCC #2613) for your own salvation! All Christians are called to follow this “narrow way of the cross” (CCC #853), and TRUST in God’s promises.

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Q493: The Old Testament story (Numbers 21:4b-9) hints at a “Harry Potter” kind of world, with special healing powers. Surely there is more than “magic” happening? And how does that relate to me today?

Absolutely correct – there is indeed something deeper than “magic” going on here! In fact, “magic” is the wrong word to describe the event.

Keep in mind the context. Earlier in the desert journey, the Israelites had complained of lack of food and water. The Lord had responded with gifts of quail (Numbers 11:31) and manna (Exodus 16; cf. Numbers 11:6), and with water (Exodus 17; cf. Numbers 20:11). So even though they are supplied by the Lord with the bare necessities, they now begin to complain about the “tastiness” of the food, protesting loudly that they were “disgusted with this wretched food.” There is an old saying, “never bite the hand that feeds you”; and now as a result of their whining behavior (a conclusion they reach in hindsight), they find themselves being bitten and killed by poisonous snakes. They presume that the misfortune was caused by the sin they had committed in complaining about God’s provision for their journey in the wilderness. Notice that they asked Moses to intercede with God to remove the cause of their death. God did not do this; but he did provide a way to be healed of the bites that caused the terminal illness: gaze upon the item raised on the cross, repent of your sinfulness, believe in God, and be healed. It is not “magic”; it is not make-believe; it is faith-based and prophetic.

Jesus saw this story in the Book of Numbers as a “prefiguration” of something that would be accomplished and fulfilled in his own life. He points out this fact in the gospel today (John 3:13-17) when he tells Nicodemus that anyone who looks at Him (the Son of Man) “lifted up,” believes, and repents, will receive a healing that lasts for all eternity!

KNOW YOUR CATECHISM! In the Old Testament, God permitted the making of images, such as the bronze serpent, that pointed symbolically toward salvation by the incarnate Word (CCC #2130). The story of the bronze serpent is a “type” or foreshadowing of the saving act of Jesus Christ on the Cross (CCC #128).

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