We always learn a great deal from the penances God imposes — for example, the silence imposed on Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, or God’s having the Israelites consume the gold dust from the golden calf they had made — because they’re always primarily medicinal and therefore teach us a great deal about the deeper nature of the sin that elicited the penance. This past Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent in the first reading from the Book of Numbers, we see the sin of the Israelites in the desert. They were complaining against God and against Moses. Taking up their familiar refrain, they wondered aloud whether God had worked all of his miracles freeing them from slavery in Egypt only to have them die in the desert. Even though God had been feeding them daily with manna from heaven in the morning and quails in the evening and quenching their thirst with water from the rock, they still said, “We are disgusted with this wretched food!” So God sent among the Israelites saraph serpents who bit them, such that many of them died. It finally brought the people to acknowledge God, to acknowledge their sinful ways and to seek God’s help. They said to Moses, “We have sinned in complaining against the Lord and you. Pray the Lord to take the serpents away from us!” So Moses did. And God gave him what would seem at first glance a strange command in response to their prayers and their predicament. “Make a saraph and mount it on a pole, and whoever looks at it after being bitten will live.” And that’s what he did. The Book of Numbers tells us, “And whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.” What was this penance about sin and remedy all about? There was a part of it that looked backward and another that looked forward.
The retrospective part of it involved the sin. It looked back to the Garden when Adam and Eve were tempted by the serpent and sinned against the Lord. By sending serpents among the Israelites, God was reminding them precisely about the presence of the devil and how he was slithering among them to lead them to complain and distrust God. He was out to kill them by poisoning them with his venom and that’s precisely what happened. He had bitten them and infected them even before the saraph serpents appeared. The remedy the Lord proposed, making a bronze serpent, mounting it on a pole and having everyone look at it was a means by which to see precisely what had caused their predicament — their sins, their having been bitten by the serpent represented by the saraph serpents — and to repent of their immoral choices. Anyone who looked upon the bronze serpent would live, but God didn’t say that he or she would be healed immediately. Those bitten would still have some of the poison in them and need to work to get better, but they would be saved. The cure began, however, with looking at the bronze serpent. If they refused to look at the remedy God had given, they would die of the poison.
That remedy is the prospective part of what God asked Moses to do. It pointed forward to Christ’s own saving action to which he alludes in today’s Gospel. Jesus tells the Pharisees that they were infected with a mortal wound. “I am going away and you will look for me, but you will die in your sin.” He said that they would be unable to follow him and would die because they would not let go of their earthly ways to follow him where he was going, through self-sacrificial love and death through Calvary to the eternal Jerusalem. “You belong to what is below, I belong to what is above,” he continued. “You belong to this world, but I do not belong to this world. That is why I told you that you will die in your sins. For if you do not believe that I AM, you will die in your sins.” Ultimately the great sin is to fail to believe in God and what God has said and done and whom he has sent. And they were refusing to do that and to acknowledge that Jesus’ deeds and witnesses all pointed to his divine origin and mission.
Looking at Jesus on the Cross, we are called to recognize two things. First, we are called to see exactly what our sins have done. They crucified the most innocent and loving Person who ever lived. They crucified Mercy incarnate! Many times we can be tempted to dismiss our sins as if they’re no big deal, just like the Jews in the desert would have been tempted to minimize their sins of complaining and distrust, but they are a big deal and led to the brutal torture and murder of Jesus. So Jesus on the Cross shows our our sins. But the second thing beholding Jesus lifted up like the serpent in the desert shows us is the type of sin that is killing us, that we have given into the slithering serpent. Jesus, however, mounted the cross in order to suck out all of the deadly venom from within us.
Today, Jesus wants to heal us by helping us to look upon him on the Cross not just with our physical eyes but in the deeper way that will bring us healing and holiness. He wants us to join him on the Cross and help us look at God, ourselves and the world with his divine lenses. He wants to feed us with the fruit of the new Tree of Life. That’s why he gives us here the body and blood shed on the Cross so that we might not perish but have eternal life. The Mass is the means by which we become a Bride with him on the Cross, by which we become one Body with him in this great medicine of immortality. This is the food that heals, makes holy, and brings us to heavenly happiness!