Fourth Sunday of Lent: 10 March

Recognizing what is tearing us away from God’s love

 Recognizing what is tearing us away from God’s love  ING-010
08 March 2024

Along the journey in the desert, after the liberation from slavery in Egypt, the people, due to their sin and their rebellion against God, were forced to face an insidious and very dangerous threat: “Then the Lord sent serpents amongst the people which bit the people, and a great number of the Israelites died” (Nm 21:6).

Then Moses prayed for the people and the Lord had Moses prepare a remedy: “Make a snake and put it on a pole; whosoever is bitten and looks at it will remain alive” (Nm 21:8).

In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus recalls that episode, well known to His interlocutors, and uses it to interpret, in advance, the meaning of His crucifixion: “Just as Moses raised up the serpent in the desert, so the Son of man must be raised up, so that whosoever believes in Him may have eternal life” (Jn 3:14).

It is important, then, that we try to grasp some elements hidden in this ancient divine remedy in order to have some tools to penetrate the glorious mystery of the Cross of Jesus.

The people had rebelled against God, had insulted Him, because in the desert there was no food and water, thus committing the worst and most deplorable of sins: a complete lack of faith.

The Israelites had focused on the things of the earth, averting their gaze from heaven. It was with their eyes fixed on the desert land that they saw only its aridity and sterility, forgetting all the wonders that God had faithfully performed for them and that He had generously bestowed upon them from above.

Moreover, in that very hostile land, burning snakes also crawled, against which the members of the people could do nothing: it was a vision and a reality of a terrible and painful threat of death.

The remedy indicated by God to Moses might seem rather strange, initially, for why on earth could a copper snake, placed on a pole, in an unnatural position, benefit the health of those who were bitten? The snake could almost seem to have the shape of an amulet, to be the makings of a magical ritual. What meaning does this divine indication portray?

First of all, carrying out such a gesture is obeying a precise divine command: and obedience to God already contains a visible and concrete act of faith, which enables the healing of the distorted dynamic of sin, inherent in the rebellion of the people.

Furthermore, physically raising one’s gaze upwards, to look at the copper serpent, diverting it from the ground, from the earth, had a great pedagogical value: it established and set in motion the re-education of the people in turning their eyes and their hearts to God, and freeing them from being prisoners of earthly logic.

It manifests and educates that all things come from Heaven, they come from the Lord who is life itself, not from the things of the earth. Moreover, the absence of water and food, instead of giving rise to complaints and a lack of faith, should have made the people remember the numerous and faithful interventions of Divine Providence, by which the Lord never abandons His children even in their wayward choices, His mercy and compassion endures forever.

Behold: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that whosoever believes in Him may have eternal life” (Jn 3:14).

Jesus is raised high on the Cross, like the ancient copper serpent: so gazing at the crucifix, contemplating Him in His saving act of complete self-giving to the Father for our salvation, educates humanity to seek life and joy not in itself and in things of the earth, but only in the Lord! This blessed time of Lent is the time through which the Church insistently invites us to fix our gaze on the Crucified One, to contemplate Him, to recognize in Him the only begotten Son of the Father, given to us by the superabundant fullness of God’s tender and enduring love, freeing us from the darkness of sin, drawing us ever close and allowing and enabling us to be admitted to eternal life.

In fact, God loved the world so much that He gave His only begotten Son so that whosoever believes in Him should not be lost but have eternal life. In fact, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through Him. Whosoever believes in Him is not condemned; but whosoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God (Jn 3:16-18).

In this time of Lent when we are invited to reflect on our lives and our relationship with God, let us humbly recognize what is tearing us away from God’s love and poisoning the purity of our hearts and damaging our relationship with Him and with our brothers and sisters. Do we perhaps want to settle for some kind of palliative remedy? Do we want to continue groping in the darkness of human meanness?

Amongst the “burning serpents” of our daily life, which threaten our joy and our dignity as children of God, let us therefore raise our gaze to the Crucified Jesus, our only reliable and credible Saviour!

*  Custody of the Holy Land

By Fr Luke Gregory, ofm *