“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,” Jesus says to Nicodemus.
Jesus is referring to an event in the desert before the Israelites entered the Promised Land. The Israelites had been grumbling and complaining against the Lord during their long sojourn in the desert. As a punishment, serpents were sent whose bite was deadly. The message of this event was that turning away from the Lord, through sin, was deadly.
Instead of finding life in him, the Israelites looked elsewhere failing to remember all the good that the Lord had done for them, especially freeing them from the tyranny in Egypt. The account in the Book of Numbers (Numbers 21:4ff) notes that the people had grown “impatient” which led to their sin. The deadly snakes provided a “wake-up call,” so to speak, and the people repented. They cried to Moses, “We have sinned in complaining against the Lord and you. Pray to the Lord to take the serpents from us.”
Moses did pray. The Lord then told him, “Make a seraph and mount it on a pole, and everyone who has been bitten will look at it and recover” (Numbers 21:8). Moses made a bronze serpent and placed it on a pole. Everyone who looked at it was healed. God’s mercy triumphed over their sinfulness.
Jesus associates that event, one that Nicodemus would well know, with his own lifting up on the cross. This time it will not be a bronze serpent but Jesus himself. The theme continues the one we have heard the past two weeks in the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration and the cleansing of the Temple. Jesus’ death will bring healing and life. His offering of himself is the definitive act and manifestation of God’s loving mercy.
Saint John the Evangelist explains: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
God’s mercy is always available. Jesus is the means and source of that mercy.
In the beginning of Lent, we heard the proclamation: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel, the kingdom of God is at hand.” During this season, we have the opportunity to examine our lives and our conscience to see where we have sinned. One way of describing sin is to “turn away” from the Lord and his way. During Lent, we have the opportunity to reflect on our lives to see where we have fallen, turned away or lost sight of the Lord in our lives.
Moved by contrition and sorrow, we can then turn back to the Lord and look upon the face of mercy – Jesus Christ, crucified – and be healed.
During the next few weeks, many parishes will have extra opportunities for the sacrament of penance, also known as the sacrament of reconciliation. The sacrament provides the opportunity for spiritual healing. When we are sick in body, we seek healing. If it is minor, we might try a simple remedy, but if it lingers or proves to be something serious, we will look for extra help.
An analogy might be made to the sickness of the soul, which is called “sin.” If it is minor, we might pray for forgiveness from the Lord, but if that sin persists, we have the opportunity for that medicine that comes through confession and absolution.
This is what is available, always and regularly, through the sacrament of penance. In that experience, we bring the sin to light by acknowledging it to the confessor. We bring it from the darkness into the light, and it is in that light that the healing power of Jesus’ death and resurrection dispels its power over us. In confession, we “turn back” to the Lord so that we may be healed and strengthened.
When Jesus speaks of the serpent in the desert, he speaks of God’s mercy. His own lifting up on the cross demonstrates the depth of God’s love and the power of his mercy. Jesus’ death leads to life. As he dies on the cross, he offers himself as the healing remedy to sin. When he rises from the dead, the power of sin (which is death) is destroyed. We are invited today to once again turn toward the Lord and to experience his loving mercy.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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