The first reading for today’s Mass is from the Book of Numbers (21:4-9). Numbers is one of the first five books of the Bible, which together are called the Torah. Numbers tells the story of the Israelites after their liberation from slavery in Egypt, during their 40-year period of wandering in the desert before entering the Promised Land. In those days of wandering, they had to re-learn who they were, and who God is. Often, they failed to trust that the Lord would take care of them. We see this in the passage from this morning, where the people’s patience is worn out and they complain against God and Moses. “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water?” They even express disgust with the Mana – the miraculous bread that appears each morning on the ground and which would sustain them during their wanderings. The people are toxic in their anger, and spew venom at God and Moses. And so, the Lord sent seraph serpents among the people. Many of the people were bitten by the serpents and died. The venom that was welling up in their hearts was thus experienced by the people in their veins, and the spiritual death of rebellion became physical death as well.
When I read this passage, I must admit that I can relate to the Israelites sometimes. It’s easy to get anxious and worried about what’s happening in the world, including turmoil and confusion in the Church, and wonder where God is in all of it. Why are these things happening? Where are we going? What’s going to happen? Anger is the fruit of our anxiety and fear. Our hearts can become toxic, like the Israelites in the desert, and we lose faith and hope and charity as we write God off and lash out at each other.
Suffering terribly because of the presence of the seraph serpents in their camp, the people repent of their rebellion against the Lord. And so, He instructs Moses to fashion a seraph serpent out of bronze and to mount it on a pole. When those who were afflicted by snakebite looked upon the serpent of bronze, they were healed. Made of bronze, the serpent was strong and without venom. It is as though the bronze serpent absorbs all of the venom and poison coursing through the bodies of those who look upon it, taking their toxicity upon itself as those who repented of their sins are healed and restored.
The bronze serpent is, of course, a foreshadowing image of Christ crucified. He is God Incarnate, and He is without sin. He allows Himself to suffer on the cross to save us from our sins. When we who are filled with the poison of sin look upon Christ on the cross with contrition, we see how He takes upon Himself all of the sins of humanity – from the sin of Adam and Eve, to the very last sin that will ever be committed – including our sins. Our sins contribute to the suffering of Christ. But He accepts them lovingly, and wants us to share them with Him so that we can receive His mercy, which drains the poison of sin from our hearts, filling them again with His life. We must keep our eyes on Him, not getting distracted or overwhelmed by the challenges we encounter along the way, as we journey through this life together to the Promised Land.