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 homily was given to the sisters and novices of the Servants of the Lord of the Virgin of Matará, at their convent in southeast Washington, D.C.
God is always faithful. Today’s gospel has a profound and yet simple message, demonstrating exactly this fidelity (Mk 7:24-30). In the old covenant, the unique relationship and bond between God and the Jewish people means that, as the Venerable Bede comments, it is right and just that they are the first to receive the messiah when he comes. We recalled, just over a week ago, the faithful old priest Simeon in the temple as Our Lady went to dutifully fulfill the rites of purification. Simeon waited his entire life to see the gloriam plebis tuæ Israel, whom he rightly recognized in the infant Christ. With the messianic prophecy fulfilled and God’s faithfulness guaranteed, he joyfully resigned himself to death in the words of the Nunc dimittis.