In case you missed it, please skim through the First Reading for Sunday’s Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross:
the people complained against God and Moses,
“Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert,
where there is no food or water?
We are disgusted with this wretched food!”
In punishment the LORD sent among the people saraph serpents,
which bit the people so that many of them died.
Then the people came to Moses and said,
“We have sinned in complaining against the LORD and you.
Pray the LORD to take the serpents from us.”
So Moses prayed for the people, and the LORD said to Moses,
“Make a saraph and mount it on a pole,
and if any who have been bitten look at it, they will live.”
Moses accordingly made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole,
and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent
looked at the bronze serpent, he lived. (NM 21:4B-9)
What a whiny, cranky bunch those Israelites were—or we are, to be honest, since we dare not read the account of the Exodus and not see ourselves in it! But, poor Moses. Look at what he had been putting up with, and, by this point, for almost forty years! “We are disgusted with this wretched food!” they moan, and not for the first time.
To show a little sympathy, it had been a long journey with many hardships. (They had just recently lost a battle because they hadn’t listened to God.) But it hadn’t been all bad. After all, God had freed them from slavery, parted the Red Sea for them, crushed their enemies, given them mysterious and miraculous food—Manna—as well as quails (they taste like chicken), and made water spring forth from rocks in the middle of the desert, along with quite a number of other miracles He worked for them; so, a little gratitude and trust wouldn’t have been too much to ask for. But no, there was just more complaining.
Although it’s not possible to date this event in the First Reading precisely, by now we’re pretty near the end of the 40 years. And this generation of the Israelites—many of whom had been born during the journey and had never seen Egypt—was pretty cantankerous (like their parents, who had grumbled pretty much from Day One) even though they had grown up surrounded by signs of God’s power, presence and love.
So, they whine, as their parents had many times, “Why did we ever leave Egypt? Sure, we were slaves there, but at least we had good food. Let’s go back!”
And God answers their prayer! Not, to be sure, in any way they could have ever expected. He sent the saraph serpents to bite them. Saraph—related to the word Seraphim—means fiery or shining, and refers perhaps to the fiery pain of their bite, or perhaps to something greater. …
Now, the text says, “In punishment the Lord sent the serpents,” but we need to be very clear about what the Scriptures mean when they say, “God punishes.” There is nothing vindictive in His action, nothing mean-spirited or vengeful; He does not get “angry” as we do; His love never lessens or changes. True, the Scriptures often use the word “anger,” but it is not to be confused with what we understand by anger.
A “punishment” from God, or a “curse,” is, at the deepest level, no different than a “blessing.” The difference is only in where we find ourselves and how we are prepared to receive it. There is nothing of the sentiment “since you didn’t do what I wanted, I will now make you suffer!” in any response the Lord ever makes to His people. This false thinking, which perverts the true nature of God’s love (which is never capricious), has caused much suffering to many people.
The reality is: God gave them what they wanted. You might object: they didn’t ask for poisonous vipers! Ah, but they did. In longing to return to Egypt, they were really asking for the bite of slavery and the sting of death, since Egypt stands not only for that particular bit of land along the Nile but also for the slavery of sin and separation from God, and a lot of other nasty things as well, such as false gods, immorality and death. In these serpents God gave them an unvarnished experience of what Egypt really is and what it would do to them, were they to go back.
But, even in giving them what they had freely chosen, God stands ready to save them (once again). Once they themselves begin to realize what they had done—“we have sinned in complaining against the Lord”—the Lord sends the remedy, but an oh-so-strange remedy. He tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and mount it on a pole and hold it up; if those who had been bitten would look at it, they would be healed and would live.
Even Moses, by now used to odd commands from the Lord, must have scratched his head and said, “Sure, whatever you say!” And we can well understand his confusion. Why this? Why this bizarre procedure? Why not simply a prayer, or a sacrifice, or a penance?
We can find the answer in the grand Basilica of Saint Ambrose in Milan. Halfway down the nave of the church, on either side of aisle, stand two pillars: on one stands a bronze serpent, on the other stands the Cross.
To be healed, the Israelites had to look at what they most feared, the serpents who were terrorizing and killing them, the serpents (let’s just say “sins” now) which they had brought upon themselves. They had to face the awful reality—literally, in gazing upon the bronze serpent—of what they themselves had done. And then, suddenly, everything was different; there was life instead of death.
In order for them to be able to receive the love and blessing which the Lord was sending them (in the albeit odd shape of a shiny snake on a pole) they had to face the horror they themselves had caused. And then they were free.
And so are we, when we look upon the sign of what we ourselves have caused—for who put Christ on the Cross if you and I did not?—when we recognize the horror of our sins—and of all sin; then the curse and shame of the Cross transforms—and transforms us—from the sign of sin and shame and death into the shining sign of life.
“And 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.”
For the Israelites, under the Old Covenant, it was enough to gaze upon the sign of their own sin for it to become the means of their redemption.
But for us, living in the New Covenant, something greater is offered:
Not only the privilege of looking upon the Bright (saraph!) and Glorious Cross Exalted before us.
Not only the chance really to see It and to see how the evil we caused in every sin which put Christ there has become the means of salvation for us!
Not only to stay—like Mary—at the foot of the Cross, accepting whatever suffering the shadow of the Cross casts upon us—not as punishment, never that!—but as moments of grace, no matter how hard to discern; no, there is something even greater. …
To mount the Cross, to become so completely one with Christ, that we join Him on the Cross, which is no longer the instrument of death but the Throne of Glory—the chariot which one day will lead us into eternal life—yes, but even here and now, the place where we are closest to Christ, to His strength, His love. The Exaltation of the Cross is given to us so that we, becoming one with Christ, might ourselves be exalted.
O Crux, ave! spes unica! Hail, O Cross, our only hope!
Prepared for Aleteia by the
Canonry of Saint Leopold
here to learn more about the Canons Regular of St. Augustine.