This morning’s old testament reading from the book of Numbers (21: 4-9) describes a scenario that should resonate in the Christian mind. The children of Israel, passing through the Red Sea waters and escaping slavery in Egypt, are on their forty year pilgrimage to the Promised Land. They have been liberated from bondage by God, and yet they complain to Moses, ‘Why have you brought us from Egypt to die in this desert?’. In return the Lord sends snakes as punishment – the bites of which prove lethal to the Israelites, who in turn beg Moses, ‘Pray the Lord to take the serpents away from us’. The Lord commands Moses, ‘Make a bronze serpent and mount it on a pole, and whoever looks at it after being bitten will live’. We are told, ‘Whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent, he lived’.
This reading is full of prophetic symbolism. First, by our own passing through the waters of baptism we ourselves undertake a forty day pilgrimage from slavery to sin to the promised land of our redemption. The whole Christian life, but particular the season of Lent, is this journey toward the promised land of the kingdom of heaven, which scripture calls, ‘The New Jerusalem’. It is for that reason that we travel to the gates of the earthly Jerusalem in the ceremonies of Palm Sunday, and see the passion, death, and resurrection of the Lord there in the rites of the sacred triduum; for they prefigure their fullness in the life of heaven.
The Church, the baptized people of the new covenant, makes her journey to this promised land. Yet, we – her members – reject this gift. Despite our baptism, despite our freedom from sin and our inheritance of the promised land of heaven, we still turn against the Lord and become subjects of sin. Just as the serpent is the tempter of Eve in the garden of Eden, so our life with God – even now, even despite the gift of salvation given us in baptism – is killed, is put to death, by the poison of sin.
In these days, then, we must return to the Lord. We must make the words of the Israelites our own: ‘We have sinned in complaining against the Lord. Pray the Lord to take the serpents away from us’. As Moses pleaded for the people of the old covenant, so Christ (whom Moses prefigures) intercedes for us. But our health, our salvation (salus), is not restored by a mere sign – a bronze serpent mounted on a pole – but by the Son of God himself, who is raised up for us by the sacrifice of himself on the cross of Calvary. This is why the Lord himself says, ‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up’ (Jn 3:14).
Through his sacrifice – his lifting up on the cross – we are healed of the poison of sin, and are restored to health in the life we are meant to lead. If we truly desire to enter the promised land of our inheritance, the cross of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ is the means of our salvation. In these final days before Holy Week, let us be drawn more and more to glory in that cross and its mystery that, by so doing, we may come to share also in its most excellent fruits.