Text: Numbers 21:4-9, Philippians 2:6-11, John 3:13-17.
A few months ago, I said that “[i]t is through obedience and service, not through pride and power, that we ourselves gain authority, participating in God’s work and living as God’s people, the flock of the Lord.”1 Today, we’ve heard a lot more about the nature of this obedience, and how it leads to sharing in Christ’s triumph.
I have a lot in common with the ancient Israelites, I think. They had been in the desert for some years, and manna was all they had had to eat. Miraculous or not, they were getting, well, fed up of it, and complained against God—I enjoy a good steak enough that had I been there, I could easily have been among the loudest! In the reading, we hear that God sent serpents among them; in my experience, the serpents that beset me when I refuse God’s gifts are of my own making, though. Just as God is said to make people stubborn so that they act against him2, so this sending of serpents may attribute human choices to God.
The means God chooses to rescue them from the serpents also suggests this. He does not take the serpents away, but instead, instructs Moses to make an icon3, 4. If the people trust in God, they will look on this icon and the serpents will have no more power over them, because they have returned to God5, but if they do not obey, it’s because they do not trust that God, through his prophet, will help them.
In the same way, God sends Jesus. When we turn to Jesus, trusting in God, we are freed from the power of sin and death. In order to give us every possible assurance so that we could trust in him, Jesus was willing to endure anything. Nicodemus, to whom Jesus is speaking in today’s Gospel, was a Pharisee, and skeptical of Christ’s words and authority; Jesus was earnestly and eloquently trying to convince him that he was from God, so that Nicodemus would believe, and so be saved. In the end, Jesus sacrifices everything—his dignity, his blood, his life, even his divinity—to show the depth of his own love for us and trust in his Father. His Father, in turn, raises him from the dead and elevates him in glory, giving him, as Paul writes, “the name that is above every name,”6 to show that Christ’s trust is not misplaced, and neither is ours if we trust in him.
This being the case, why do I find myself so often preferring other things to God’s will? Certainly, I can say, “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done,” but I find myself rather like the man who went to a Zen master sitting along a river to seek enlightenment.7 The master asked, “Do you really want enlightenment?” The man affirmed that he indeed wanted enlightenment. Again the master asked, “Do you want enlightenment more than anything else in the world?” The man swore that nothing else in the world mattered to him but to become enlightened. The master then seized the man’s head and held it in the river, not letting him up until he was almost drowned. When the man could finally breathe again, the Zen master told him, “When you want enlightenment as much as you wanted air just now, then you will be enlightened.” Do I really want God’s will so much that if I do not follow it, I feel that I am drowning? The evidence is against me, I fear.
St. Teresa of Avila shared these worries, but shows the way ahead, praying, “Oh God, I don’t love you, I don’t even want to love you, but I want to want to love you!”8 Wanting God is a consequence of true understanding, and in our human state, we are very seldom able to see the reality of God clearly enough to achieve that. St. Teresa expresses a way for us to be at peace as we seek that truth while we fail to live up to its ideal. Jesus himself reassures us, saying that his Father did not send him “into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”9 Like the Israelites, we often forget God’s love for us, but she does everything imaginable to remind us and draw us back to her breast. Christ’s incarnation, suffering, death and resurrection is the summit of God’s saving activity in our world, and gives us the focal symbol to which we turn today.
We turn to God not only as individuals, but as a community. The faith of each is a sign for all, as we remind each other of God’s will and God’s love. Our righteous deeds can inspire, but so can our return from sin to grace. If others who have sinned can be forgiven, perhaps I too can dare to trust in God. The Cross is reflected in every word, every action that is in accordance with God’s will. This applies in our parish community, but also in many others: in our families, our workplaces, our social circles, the Roman Catholic Church as a whole, our city, our nation, the community of all faiths, and the entire world. In every community, we can give glory to God and we can draw inspiration from others who show God’s love in so many different ways.
Like the bronze serpent of Moses, the Triumph of the Cross is inexhaustible: each time we turn away from sin and towards God, we are cleansed and made new. The serpents’ poison is neutralized, and we are again free to live. If we sin again, we have only to return to God, confident that the Cross will still stand for us. In that moment, we can pray the Good Thief’s prayer, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom,”10 and share in Christ’s obedience and so his glory. When we are lifted up with Christ, then God’s purpose is fulfilled, and we glimpse—if only for a moment—God’s everlasting, triumphant love.
1: Posted here.
2: Cf. Exodus 14:17, for example.
3: There's lots to say about the symbolism of the bronze serpent on a pole that didn't make it into my original reflection. The Rod of Asclepius (not to be confused with the Caduceus) is a very strong parallel, suggesting a common symbolic origin. The serpent in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:1-5) is the most obvious reference in this context, recalling the sin of choosing the serpent's suggestion instead of God's command. Later, God shows his power to be greater than the serpent's in a magical contest between Aaron and the Egyptian wizards (Exodus 7:8-12). The serpent's association with the wisdom of the world and the underworld is widespread, and is another reason why I read this as I do. There's lots more to say about the symbolism of the serpent.
4: The icon later becomes an idol worshiped in its own right as a deity called Nehushtan, and is broken by the righteous king Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:4). The healing (metaphorically, saving) power was attributed by the Israelites to the object instead of God who had told Moses to make it and sent power through it, in a very common fallacy of attributing the greatest importance to proximate, visible causes.
5: Cf. Wisdom 16:5-14.
6: Philippians 2:9.
7: Found in numerous places online, but never attributed to any original source, this must sadly remain anonymous.
8: Commonly attributed to St. Teresa, but this is debatable. I didn't find it in The Interior Castle, even though that's sometimes cited as the source. Amy Plantinga Pauw cites it anonymously in "Attending to the gaps between beliefs and practices" (p. 47 in Practicing Thology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Blass, eds., Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2002), and includes a footnote expressing doubt of the attribution to St. Teresa.
9: John 3:17.
10: Luke 23:42.