Beholding Jesus Like the Lifted Serpent in the Desert, 5th Tuesday of Lent, April 4, 2017

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent
April 4, 2017
Numbers 21:4-9, Ps 102, Jn 8:21-30


To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 


The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • We always learn a great deal from the penances God imposes — for example, the silence imposed on Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father — because they’re always primarily medicinal and therefore teach us a great deal about the deeper nature of the sin that elicited the penance. Today 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!” Some people can complain even about the menu at the Last Supper! 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 it 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.
  • They were infected, essentially, with the same diabolical poison with which their ancestors were in the desert. So was everyone else except Jesus’ mother. But Jesus would himself become the bronze serpent to save all of those who had the humility to look at him with faith. Talking about his crucifixion, he said today, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM, and that I do nothing on my own, but I say only what the Father taught me.” No man, obviously, would choose to be crucified on his own. When he was lifted up on the Cross, that’s when all who would look upon him with faith would grasp that he was the essence of divine love, that he was one not following his own will, but the Father’s saving will, and that he “always do[es] what is pleasing to Him.” This passage links to an even clearer one from earlier in the Gospel when Jesus said, “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. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn 3:14-16). Out of love for us, to save us from the poison we carry within, Jesus allowed himself to become the new and eternal saraph serpent, lifted up on the pole of the Cross.
  • 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. St. Paul wrote some very deep theological words in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, “For our sake he made him who did not know sin to be sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). He took on all our sins and was treated like a malefactor, like a criminal deserving capital punishment, where it was we who deserved the death penalty on account of the mortal nature of our sinfulness. But God so loved us that he allowed Jesus to do all of this so that we might not perish but might have eternal life. So that we might become filled with God’s holy justice. This is the essence of the Good News! This is Christianity!
  • But our cure involves not just glancing at Christ on the Cross with our eyes but really becoming one with this mystery, allowing it to penetrate our hearts and all parts of our being so that we may never cease inwardly contemplating Christ on the Cross. Like St. John, we must behold the one we have pierced and see the saving, transformative blood and water flowing from his side. Like St. Paul, we need to look at Christ on the Cross in a way that leads us to become one with his saving love. “I have been crucified with Christ,” St. Paul said to the Galatians, “and it is no longer even I who live but Christ who lives in me. The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me!” That’s why St. Paul was able to glory and boast in nothing “except the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world is crucified to me and I to the world.” That’s why when Jews found the Cross a scandal (that the Messiah would be murdered by the very occupying forces from whose clutches they anticipated he would liberate them) and the Greeks a folly (that someone would be so dumb as to be publicly tortured and ignominiously executed), St. Paul was able to find in the Cross his power and glory. He found in the Cross the source of the healing we most need!
  • Today, during this Jubilee of mercy, 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. Far from “wretched food,” this is the food that heals, makes holy, and brings us to heavenly happiness!

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
NM 21:4-9

From Mount Hor the children of Israel set out on the Red Sea road,
to bypass the land of Edom.
But with their patience worn out by the journey,
the people complained against God and Moses,
“Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert,
where there is no food or water?
We are disgusted with this wretched food!”
In punishment the LORD sent among the people saraph serpents,
which bit the people so that many of them died.
Then the people came to Moses and said,
“We have sinned in complaining against the LORD and you.
Pray the LORD to take the serpents away from us.”
So Moses prayed for the people, and the LORD said to Moses,
“Make a saraph and mount it on a pole,
and whoever looks at it after being bitten will live.”
Moses accordingly made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole,
and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent
looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.

Responsorial Psalm
PS 102:2-3, 16-18, 19-21

R. (2) O Lord, hear my prayer, and let my cry come to you.
O LORD, hear my prayer,
and let my cry come to you.
Hide not your face from me
in the day of my distress.
Incline your ear to me;
in the day when I call, answer me speedily.
R. O Lord, hear my prayer, and let my cry come to you.
The nations shall revere your name, O LORD,
and all the kings of the earth your glory,
When the LORD has rebuilt Zion
and appeared in his glory;
When he has regarded the prayer of the destitute,
and not despised their prayer.
R. O Lord, hear my prayer, and let my cry come to you.
Let this be written for the generation to come,
and let his future creatures praise the LORD:
“The LORD looked down from his holy height,
from heaven he beheld the earth,
To hear the groaning of the prisoners,
to release those doomed to die.”
R. O Lord, hear my prayer, and let my cry come to you.

JN 8:21-30

Jesus said to the Pharisees:
“I am going away and you will look for me,
but you will die in your sin.
Where I am going you cannot come.”
So the Jews said,
“He is not going to kill himself, is he,
because he said, ‘Where I am going you cannot come’?”
He said to them, “You belong to what is below,
I belong to what is above.
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.”
So they said to him, “Who are you?”
Jesus said to them, “What I told you from the beginning.
I have much to say about you in condemnation.
But the one who sent me is true,
and what I heard from him I tell the world.”
They did not realize that he was speaking to them of the Father.
So Jesus said to them,
“When you lift up the Son of Man,
then you will realize that I AM,
and that I do nothing on my own,
but I say only what the Father taught me.
The one who sent me is with me.
He has not left me alone,
because I always do what is pleasing to him.”
Because he spoke this way, many came to believe in him.