Our forty-day Lenten journey through the desert wilderness is reminiscent of and echoes Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness following his baptism. And Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness is reminiscent of and echoes the forty years the Israelites spent in the wilderness between the Red Sea and the Jordan River, between their exodus from slavery in Egypt and their entrance into the Promised Land.
Our first reading today takes us back to that forty-year period in which Jesus’s ancestors were wandering. The story today is one of many so-called murmuring stories because the people of God murmur against God. They complain why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no food or water, and we detest this miserable food. I love that—we have no food and we detest this food. Which is it? I’m guilty of this myself. Sometimes I open the fridge and think there is no food in here, even though it is full. This is a very human problem. It is an attitude of ingratitude. We are unable to see what we have in front of us and be grateful for it, but instead see what we do not have and are bitter about it. That is what the Israelites have going on here. It’s one of many; it’s a pattern. They complain we don’t have any food and God gives them food. Then they claim we don’t have any water and God gives them water. Then they complain they don’t have any food and God gives them food. They claim they don’t have any water and God gives them water, and so on and so forth, ad nauseum.
But here we are, and God finally loses his patience with them. Instead of giving them what they want, he gives them poisonous snakes. The snakes bite the people, and they die. Quite quickly, the people realize that it was a mistake to be ungrateful for what they had. So they go to Moses and say we screwed up, we’ve sinned. Can you please intercede with God for us? Moses says sure, I’ll do that. So Moses goes to God and says the people have sinned, they are sorry, so can you please take these snakes away from us? God listens, but God does not do what Moses asked. Rather than take the snakes away, God tells Moses to make a bronze snake on top of a bronze pole and put it right in the middle of the people. Rather than take the snakes away, the danger away, the suffering and pain away, God gives them an avenue through which they can get healing from the pain. When they gaze upon this bronze serpent, they will be healed, in many ways not unlike anti-venom or immunotherapy. This solution is designed to go through the very thing that is causing the harm to find the healing. It sounds like magic, and the Book of Wisdom later addresses this. It wasn’t the pole itself with the snake on top, but rather it was God working through that. This pole becomes almost sacramental. A sacrament, you remember, is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. So in this outward and visible sign of the snake up on the pole, the people find the inward and spiritual grace of God’s healing power, of God’s salvation for them.
But that salvation, that healing, can only be mediated by a sacrament that brings to mind the very thing that is causing them the pain. They cannot avoid the snakes. Instead, they have to go through them in order to find healing.
For my studies, I am currently reading a book on meditation. I came across a passage towards the end of this book that reminded me of this story. The author says that pyschotherapists have long held that the process of healing requires you to experience, accept, and take responsibility for the dark side of your self. The dark side includes all the things that are fearsome, embarrassing, shame-filled and the like, in short, the things you don’t want to know and vigorously deny about yourself. It also includes those inner energies and forces that you are powerless to control. The process of healing makes inquiry into this valley of darkness vital. It’s the same truth that God was expressing in the wilderness: you cannot avoid the dark things in life, but you have to go through them in order to find healing.
Jesus takes this story, this image of the snake up on the pole in the Gospel today, and uses it to help us understand what is happening in his death and his resurrection. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up. Whoever believes in Him may have eternal life. Jesus uses that snake on the pole to help us understand the perennial question of the cross. Why did Jesus have to die for us on that cross? Because we cannot avoid death and suffering, pain and challenge in this life. Instead, we have to move through it to find our healing and our salvation; we have to move through the cross to get to the empty tomb; we have to move through Good Friday to get to Easter.
It is a truth that we discover again and again. We who are so good at avoidance find that the snake of avoidance keeps biting us again and again. The very thing we want to find healing from is prevented by our avoidance. It is only by facing our fears and moving through it that we find our salvation. The cross is the sacramental symbol of that reality, the reality of God’s healing power in this world. Our work as people of the cross, as Christians who have put this symbol at the center of our life together, is to move through that pain and suffering, and to help others move through it; to work through the Good Fridays of this life and bring about resurrection; to bring hope to a world in great pain.
As we continue this Lenten journey, let us keep our eyes focused on that cross. Let us keep our eyes focused on Good Friday and the Easter that is right behind it. Let us help bring about resurrection in this world.