This Sunday, the Twisted Image That Leads Us Home
We are each in our own personal exile in sin — our journey away from the Father. Lent shows the way back home.
The Lenten Sunday Readings have presented several analogies: On the first Sunday, Lent was like a desert (and/or a flood); on the second, Lent was like a journey up Mount Moriah (and/or Tabor); in the third Sunday, Lent was like a defiled Temple that we need to cleanse (using the Ten Commandments).
This Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Lent Year B, Lent is a land of exile where our suffering teaches us to pursue our longing for home instead of our longing for sin.
Jesus refers to an obscure story from the book of Numbers to make a crystal-clear point.
“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 tells Nicodemus in Sunday’s Gospel reading.
Nicodemus, a Jewish leader, would have understood exactly what he was referring to: God’s response to his people’s wandering in the desert for 40 years — their long Lent.
“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” they ask, in Numbers 21. “For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Egypt was the land of their degradation, the place where they were enslaved to a pagan power, but now they prefer the demeaning comforts of slavery to the difficult responsibilities of freedom. The prefer the rations of their slave-masters to Manna from heaven.
So, “the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.” The people repent, ask for relief, and get it. “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live,” says the Lord. They do it, and it works.
The psychological lesson in this is clear. But there is something even more important going on.
God wants them to look at their sin, reject it, and remember their place. It’s like a trick a rehabilitation program might suggest to an addict: Keep a token of the time you hit “rock bottom” to remember just how bad life as an addict was.
The snakes biting the Hebrews are like our sins, says St. Bede. “The sins which drag down soul and body to destruction,” he writes, “are appropriately represented by the serpents because they were fiery and poisonous [and] artful at bringing about death.”
But God makes the symbol of their sin the very thing that takes away their suffering. Jesus goes even further in the crucifix. Jesus “became sin” for our sake, as St. Paul starkly puts it. That’s why he is “aptly made known by the bronze serpent,” writes St. Bede.
Both the snake and the cross are images of what Vatican II called the “deranged self-love” we have to purify ourselves of through “the power of Christ’s cross and resurrection.”
The sojourn in the desert isn’t the only story of the displaced People of God in Sunday’s readings.
The First Reading, from Second Chronicles, describes what happens many years later when Israel breaks its covenant with God: The house of God is destroyed, and the people are driven from their homeland. Only after penance has been paid and the covenant honored does King Cyrus restore the Temple and call the people home.
What was Israel’s sin? “Early and often did the Lord, the God of their fathers, send his messengers to them. … But they mocked the messengers of God, despised his warnings and scoffed at his prophets, until the anger of the Lord against his people was so inflamed that there was no remedy.”
They didn’t sin in any spectacular way to alienate themselves from God — they simply stopped taking him seriously. We do that too. We don’t attack God’s messengers — we just cringe and shrug them off. We don’t denounce Jesus — we just ignore him.
No wonder we so often feel displaced, like the exiled Jews in Sunday’s Psalm who say, “By the streams of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.”
Father Robert Spitzer writes a lot about the feeling we have that we are in exile and the longing we feel for home.
“Many philosophers and theologians connect this feeling with a human being’s yearning to be home with totality — not merely home with myself, my family, my friends, or even the world, but to be perfectly at home, without any hint of alienation.,” he wrote.
When we are longing to be “home” what we are longing for is Being itself, Father Spitzer explains. And Being itself is God, the God who, when Moses asked his name, answered simply: “I am who am.”
Paul gives the solution to this longing in the Second Reading, which some scholars say is a commentary on the Prodigal Son.
A few lines after this Sunday’s reading, the Letter to the Ephesians exhorts us to remember when we were “far off,” “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” That describes the rock bottom experience of the Prodigal Son with the pigs, the Jews with the desert, the exiles in Babylon, and us with us in our sinfulness.
But in Sunday’s Reading we hear the way out: “God, who is rich in mercy because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life.”
And that’s the final meaning of the twisted signs of the serpent and the cross.
As Gregory of Nazianzus put it, the poison-free bronze serpent and the cross are both a taunt to evil, saying what the resurrection says: “‘O death where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?’ You are overthrown by the cross. You are slain by him who is the giver of life. You are without breath, dead, without motion, even though you keep the form of a serpent lifted high on a poll.”
Jesus comes into our world and suffers for us — not to appease an angry God but to take our poison onto himself. The Gospel, of course, says it this way: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
In the cross, Jesus has turned the sign of our shame into the symbol of our hope, as Father David Pivonka put it. He wants to take away our poison, flood us with light, and pull us up to his level — but he can only lift us in his glory if we join him in his suffering, and he can only bring us home if we believe.