March 14, 2021 – Fourth Sunday of Lent
Fr. Manoling Thomas, CSsR
Click here for the readings (https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/031421-YearB.cfm)
Today’s Gospel begins with Jesus telling Nicodemus: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” [Jn. 13:14]. Jesus is referring to an experience of the Israelites while travelling through the desert, heading for the Promised Land. They were attacked by poisonous snakes or “fiery serpents” which killed many of them. The people asked Moses’ help, who also turned to Yahweh. Yahweh instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent, and mount it on a pole. Those bitten by the poisonous snakes were told to gaze at the bronze serpent. Those who did were healed and restored to life! [Num. 21:1-9].
The Israelites must have brought along with them to the Promised Land that bronze serpent. Superstitions and practices of idolatry around that bronze serpent crept in, that during the reformation that King Hezekiah introduced, he broke into pieces that bronze serpent and destroyed it altogether! [2 Kgs. 18:1-5]. But why did Jesus refer to that incident and use that imagery?
Jesus used that incident and imagery to symbolize his crucifixion and glorification [resurrection]! [Jn. 8:28]. Jesus draws a parallel between the bronze serpent incident and his own destiny. The bronze serpent was lifted up on a pole. Jesus was lifted up on the cross. To those bitten by the poisonous snakes, who looked up to the bronze serpent, their life was restored. Jesus is the source of life in this world and the eternal life after. In today’s Gospel, Jesus guaranteed with eternal life those who choose to believe in him. [Jn. 3:15].
Like the Israelites who were victims of the fiery serpents, humankind too is a victim and is poisoned by sin: pride, greed, lust, envy, laziness, gluttony and other forms of sin! Sin is a poison within us that undermines our spiritual growth and well-being. Our only hope is Jesus, our Doctor and Healer! Jesus is the Suffering Servant of God [Is. 52:13-53:12] lifted up at his crucifixion!
To be “lifted up” can mean physically, like with the case of the bronze serpent and with Jesus’ crucifixion. But the word has another meaning. In Latin, the word “exaltare” [to be raised up high], is reserved for a very special kind of elevation, like being elevated to a rank or dignity or to be praised highly!
For the crucified Jesus being “elevated” above the ground was a very shameful experience not only for him, but also for his disciples and for all those who believed in him! Jesus was publicly exposed almost naked and with his wounds bleeding! While hanging on the cross, Jesus was publicly derided, and insulted by his enemies. But God used that shameful and humiliating experience of Jesus, to save us! That shameful and insulting “lifting up” of Jesus was transformed by God into Jesus’ ultimate and eternal “exaltation”, his glorious resurrection!
What can we learn from today’s Gospel and from the history behind the bronze serpent?
- Believing and accepting Jesus’ offer is a free choice every person has to make. The gazing at the bronze serpent offered healing and life, but far more superior is what Jesus offers to those who freely choose to believe in him. Jesus offers eternal life!
- What Yahweh used as an instrument of healing, and restoration to life became a source of superstition and idolatry that King Hezekiah had to destroy it to save God’s people!
We Catholics are often accused by non-Catholics of carving images and worshipping these, thus practicing idolatry! We Catholics do not worship these images but venerate them! There is a big difference between worshiping and venerating! If we Catholics worship these images then the accusations of idolatry, thrown at us is correct! But the truth is: we do not worship these images but venerate them! We honor and reverence these representations of God and of the saints like the way we respect the representations of people we love and hold with high regard!
Just as God used that bronze serpent to bring about healing and restoration of life to the victims of the poisonous snakes, so too God can freely decide to use what we call “miraculous images” to bring about healing, conversion, and transformation in the lives of people. It is not the image itself that brings about these “miracles” but God and the powerful intercessions of the saints these images represent!
We must therefore be very careful and definitely clear on how we regard the sacred images, so as not to give our non-Catholic brothers and sisters the opportunity to accuse us falsely of idolatry!