Moses needed some time to convince his compatriots in Egypt to leave that country and return to the land of their ancestors: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Initially they were pretty reluctant, moving towards hostility when Pharaoh made their lives harder in response to Moses’ demands for freedom. But his endurance and perseverance, mixed with cleverness and strong beliefs, eventually won him his people. They followed Moses, going to the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey, where they would be self-governing and freed from the oppressive Egyptian establishment. Somehow Moses had forgotten to tell them that in order to get there they would have to cross inhospitable deserts, fight hostile tribes on their way, not to mention that their promised land had already been inhabited.
Today’s first reading presents one of the many moments, when travelling Israeli folk – thirsty, hungry and dirty – lose their patience with Moses and openly criticise him. In other parts of the Bible we can come across many similar scenes, when the people recall their former lives in Egypt, lived in relative peace and comfort. Their apparent sheer ingratitude is always punished in one way or another. In today’s first reading the venomous snakes, killing many people, are seen as the punishment for their disloyalty – though quite likely they might have been part of their discontent as much as deprivation of food and water. In their suffering they turn to Moses, and in response he produces a bronze serpent nailed to a wooden pole as a totem of salvation. In the Bible, the snake symbolises Satan, and nailing its material presentation conveys victory over the people’s meanness, pettiness and selfishness.
In the gospel Jesus recalls that same symbol from the desert, comparing his own sacrifice to that of Moses, though adding a completely new meaning to it and widening its perspective. The reasoning behind his sacrifice is presented in a very clear way: ‘God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life.’ Jesus’ sacrifice is a labour of love, of love incomprehensible, because He offers himself for those who don’t deserve it. He – the perfect, sinless man – takes all the sins of the world on his shoulders, and is nailed to cross, paying the ultimate price for our freedom. The key word here is ‘to believe in him.’ Faith is the only way that His sacrifice can take effect in our lives.
Many people have scorned our devotion to the cross. It was rather embarrassing to many Christians for the first couple of centuries, when crucifixion was still used by the powerful as a means of torture and of killing people. Though hardly present in the Christian iconography of the first centuries, the Crucifixion of Jesus was the central narrative among the believers, it has been since then, and it still is. But the cross is not an object of devotion in its own rights; it was a horrible tool of torture in the past, and is now revived by the psychopathic militants in the Middle East. What we do celebrate is the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, and therefore it is the tool of our salvation. By comparison, this year we don’t celebrate the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, but we remember, admire and celebrate those who paid the ultimate price for the freedom of our country and of Europe.
There is one line from today’s gospel that we should take with us and keep precious for every day of our lives: ‘God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved.’ Redeemed by his cross we are sent to pass that message to others, so that they might be saved too.