In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus summed up the way we are to live as his disciples, calling us all to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow in his steps. Because the idea of “taking up our cross” can intimidate us, the Church gives us today’s great feast in order to remind us that the Cross is not only a symbol of death. It is also our hope, our boast, our way to glory. The Cross has become the fundamental symbol of the Christian religion, the sign of our ultimate victory over sin and death.
Before the victory of Christ, the Cross was certainly nothing to celebrate or boast about. Crucifixion was the Roman Empire’s horrible method of executing criminals. When the Lord willingly suffered this cruel torment, he completely reversed and transformed the whole meaning of the Cross – from suffering to healing, from punishment to victory, from hatred to love, from death to life.
The three readings today talk about salvation through the “raising up” or “lifting up” of Christ – that is, his “exaltation.” At the center of the whole feast is what Jesus says to Nicodemus: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” Jesus links the mysterious incident of the “lifting up” of the serpent in the time of Moses with his own saving death on the Cross. This connection was always part of God’s eternal plan, but it was only revealed gradually, in stages.
In today’s first reading, the people of Israel lose faith and begin to complain against God and Moses. How quickly they have forgotten the marvels the Lord did to free them from the bondage of slavery in the land of Egypt! They have forgotten the most important lessons of all: that God never abandons us; that he is always faithful to his promises, even in times of suffering.
Are we not like the short-sighted Israelites? The hardships of our “desert journey” of life can be very heavy, at times truly crushing. We wonder what the Lord is doing, and we are tempted to doubt his love. Bitterness and despair, however, are never the correct answer. If we turn away from God at the times when we need him the most, we cause worse suffering for ourselves, for we end up living without hope and without God (cf. Eph 2:12).
The consequence of sin is death (cf. Rom 6:23). The Israelites learn this lesson literally through the sudden infestation of poisonous snakes, or “saraph serpents.” The people’s suffering, terrible though it is, bears good fruit: it moves them away from their arrogant complaints and back to humility before the Lord. In answer to their cries, and the intercession of Moses, the Lord gives them a remedy for their sins. It is amazingly simple: all they have to do is look at a bronze serpent on a pole and they recover. Of course, it is not the bronze serpent itself that saves them. It is really God who saves them, but he uses this mysterious sign as his instrument.
The venom of the snakes is a most fitting symbol for the spiritual poison that we receive when we sin. Like the people of Israel, we have all sinned, and have suffered sin’s predictable effects. Sin leaves us spiritually sick and dying. We have been poisoned with the venom of pride, envy, anger, greed, sloth, gluttony and lust. The good news is that God does not leave us to die in sin. In his love, he sends a remedy: “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” When Jesus comes to save the world, he fulfills the prophetic sign of the serpent. He is lifted up on the Cross as the remedy for the deadly poison of sin.
In order for the Israelites to be saved, they must look at the bronze serpent. In order for us to be saved, we must “look” at Christ on the Cross. “They will look upon him whom they have pierced” (Jn 19:37). We look upon him in faith whenever we turn to him in prayer, whenever we open our hearts to his will. Today’s profound reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians helps us to look more deeply at Christ and the mystery of the Cross. On Good Friday, most of the onlookers saw only a suffering man. They did not know that he was the Son of God, that he was equal to the Father, and that he had “emptied himself” so thoroughly that he could be crucified. Paul tells us the secret of what was really happening on the Cross. On it, Jesus Christ was emptying himself, pouring out the fullness of his divine love upon us. The fruit of his perfect sacrifice is that he is now “greatly exalted,” forever praised in Heaven and earth as the LORD.
The path Jesus took to save us – his being humbled and then exalted, his dying and rising – is also the path of salvation for us. Today we rejoice in the Cross, not because we love suffering, but because we love God. We meet him most intimately at the Cross, where we learn to make an offering of ourselves in love. We are humbled by the contradiction of suffering, but he has made this very humiliation a way to glory. By our share in the Cross of Christ, we are exalted with him in glory.
How do I see the burden of the cross in my life as my only hope and my way to glory? What are the hardships in my “desert journey” that may cause me to doubt God’s love for me? How does the venom of pride, envy, anger, and greed poison my spiritual life?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 17, no. 7. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.