The people were tired. Having been settled and established in Egypt for generations, they quickly grew weary of their new nomadic lifestyle. The heat and cold of the desert, its rough terrain and relentless sun, its monotonous and bland food, and its barren horizon which obscured the elusive destination of a land that promised freedom and an easy life of milk and honey – all of this weighed heavily upon them. Soon, rather than relying on God’s ongoing care, they began to forget the wonders that God had worked on their behalf – liberating them from the oppression of Pharaoh, the toil of slavery, the pursuit of Egypt’s army and the overwhelming waters of the sea. They lost sight of how far God had brought them and they began to think only of the challenges of the day. Rather than maintaining an attitude of thanksgiving and gratitude, they began to complain and became resentful not only of Moses but also of God. They sinned.
And yet, as soon as they faced a new threat, the burning and deadly bite of desert serpents, they once again turned to God, begging Moses to intercede on their behalf. And, despite their lack of gratitude, despite their complaints, despite their earlier resentment, God extends mercy and healing in response to their cries. God instructs Moses to mount a bronze serpent on a pole so that when the people would gaze upon it, they would be saved from the deadly outcome of their sin of ingratitude and their lack of trust. It is hard to understand the importance of this gesture. It certainly was not to have the people worship some form of graven image! Perhaps it was important for the people to see and to acknowledge the punishment of the sin that they had committed so that they might once again accept the saving power of God and be cured from the deadly venom of sin passing through their veins. They could see that God transforms even a deadly situation into an experience of new life. Jesus makes a clear reference to this story in today’s gospel, tying together the elevation of the bronze serpent in the desert with the lifting-up of the Son of Man for the salvation of all, the lifting-up of the Son of Man on the Cross.
When we hear the name of this feast, it would be easy for us to focus only on the lifting up of a physical cross. Unfortunately, the power of the physical symbol of the cross ironically seems to have lost some of its meaning today. The image of the cross is used so frequently that it has become not so much a symbol of faith, but for some simply a fashion statement or a wall decoration. Not much thought is given to its meaning. Our celebration today calls us to recognize once again the true meaning of the cross in our faith and the role it should play in our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. The people of Israel came to experience the saving and healing power of God even in the image of a deadly snake. We are called to recognize the true healing and saving power of God’s mercy in the cross carried by Jesus, the cross upon which he was lifted up so that we might be saved.
Jesus frequently spoke to his disciples of the cross that he would bear for the salvation of the world, and of the suffering and death which he would experience at the hands of sinners. His disciples, however, did not – perhaps could not – understand what he was trying to say. James and John sought to sit at his left and his right, Thomas was confused as to where he was going, Nicodemus was bewildered, and Peter even tried to take Jesus to task for predicting the passion. They seemed to understand salvation in terms of political power, personal prestige, certainty of purpose, or some other form of “prosperity gospel.” To all this, Jesus is relentless in saying: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (MK 8:34)
But where are we to experience our cross in life, and thus be able to follow Jesus? It might not be as dramatic as we would think or even like. Very likely, we will find that our opportunity to be united to Christ in his saving cross is right in front of us in the day to day situations of ordinary life. At times we might feel worn-down and weary either by the roughness of the terrain of our journey through life, or by the monotony that our life brings us. Perhaps we are discouraged by the uncertainty of the situation in which we find ourselves, or feel lost in a desert terrain and unfamiliar territory. Perhaps we feel the stinging wounds of disappointment, or the burden of illness, or discouragement because life is not turning out as we thought it might. In such circumstances, we like the Israelites, can lose sight of the marvels that God has worked for us, forget just how far we have come, and set aside a sense of gratitude and praise for a spirit of bitterness and resentment.
Or, we can see in these situations and experiences our own share in the sufferings of Jesus. We can pick up the cross that life brings to us, follow in the path of Jesus, and offer any inconveniences, uncertainties and sufferings we might encounter out of love to the Father for the salvation of the world. This is not a call to glorify suffering or to idolize some bronze serpent of our own design. Rather, it is an invitation to move beyond the pain of our lives and even the effects of sin in our world in order to experience the saving power of God. It is an invitation to experience the triumph of Jesus Christ, the crucified. As Pope Benedict teaches us, suffering can teach us to hope. (Encyclical letter “Spe Salvi – In Hope We Were Saved 35-40)
In being lifted-up on the cross, Jesus shows the saving power of God’s love – even in circumstances of great suffering and seeming failure. By his trust in the Father’s will for him even in such circumstances, Jesus breaks the power of sin in our world and shows to us the way of life. By lifting up the cross of Christ in our lives, we learn to live in the hope that comes through the life-giving grace that can carry us through the most difficult times. We also hold up the banner of Christ’s victory to a world that needs its saving message!