In this blog, I follow the daily bible readings of the Catholic Church
Reading 1, Numbers 21:4-9
4 They left Mount Hor by the road to the Sea of Suph, to skirt round Edom. On the way the people lost patience.
5 They spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in the desert? For there is neither food nor water here; we are sick of this meagre diet.’
6 At this, God sent fiery serpents among the people; their bite brought death to many in Israel.
7 The people came and said to Moses, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Intercede for us with God to save us from these serpents.’ Moses interceded for the people,
9 Moses then made a serpent out of bronze and raised it as a standard, and anyone who was bitten by a serpent and looked at the bronze serpent survived.
Gospel, John 8:21-30
21 Again he said to them: I am going away; you will look for me and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.
22 So the Jews said to one another, ‘Is he going to kill himself, that he says, “Where I am going, you cannot come?” ‘
23 Jesus went on: You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world.
24 I have told you already: You will die in your sins. Yes, if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.
25 So they said to him, ‘Who are you?’ Jesus answered: What I have told you from the outset.
26 About you I have much to say and much to judge; but the one who sent me is true, and what I declare to the world I have learnt from him.
27 They did not recognise that he was talking to them about the Father.
28 So Jesus said: When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am He and that I do nothing of my own accord. What I say is what the Father has taught me;
29 he who sent me is with me, and has not left me to myself, for I always do what pleases him.
30 As he was saying this, many came to believe in him.
Commentators are still puzzled by the story of the serpents but my late granny had no doubts about its meaning:
“Numbers of people, then as now, had poisonous mouths, and said bad words against God and Moses. So God allowed the fiery serpents to bite them, as a sign of what they were doing to each other. After Moses interceded for the people, God let him make a fiery serpent of bronze, as a warning sign, which drove the poison out of anyone who looked at it.”
No scholar, as far as I know, has done better than that.
If we could really see the evil we do, we might be turned away from it.
In John 3:14 the author tells us that the Son of Man must be lifted up, as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent so that none believing in him may perish, but have eternal life. In this comparison, Jesus on his cross is simultaneously a sign of human evil and the sign of God’s love victorious over evil. “Lifting up” becomes for John a pun which brings together the lifting of the serpent, the lifting of the cross and the raising of Jesus to the Father, in one phrase.
In today’s extract from John 8, Jesus is shown speaking mysteriously to those who do not believe in him, about his origin and ultimate destiny “above”. They cannot understand this talk, but Jesus promises that at least some of them will understand when they lift up (on the cross) the son of man. Human poison makes the cross, but in Jesus, God neutralises it by love, and turns it into an image of healing and glory.
The bizarre and ironical image of the bronze serpent suits the dark insight of John’s gospel into human sin and God’s salvation. Our deepest evil and our most profound healing are made one in the cross of Christ.
It is this conviction which fuels any attempt at truth and reconciliation in the wake of terrible conflict or oppression. If we hide the evil it will fester, but if we expose it, it can be stripped of its power to harm and become an instrument of peace. The same is true of any evil in our personal history: only its complete exposure, on the cross of Christ, can heal us.
As I approach Holy Week, I can take these scriptures to heart.