Over the years many of us have heard complaints from people. From children on vacation constantly asking “Are we there yet?” to adults unhappy with the way we do things–too slowly for some or too quickly for others.
In the first reading for the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (Numbers 21:4-9), the Israelites, while crossing the desert, are frequently complaing against God and Moses. “Why have you brought us out here from Egypt to die in this desert where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this wretched food.” Nothing is said, of course, that God had given the Israelites manna and water.
The Lord has had it up to his neck with the ungrateful complaints, so he sent poisonous serpents which bit the people and some died. When they saw what was occurring, the people went to Moses, their mediator, and asked him to act on their behalf. In the conversation the Lord told Moses, “Make a serpent and mount it on a pole. And if anyone has been bitten, have them look at it, and they will live.”
Moses made a bronze serpent, mounted it on a pole, raised it up , so that anyone who saw it would be healed. Incidentally, during Jesus’ time in the Ancient Near East serpents were believed to have good qualities as well as bad ones. Today, we have various illustrations. For example, the caduceus, the symbol of the medical profession has two wrapped serpents around the wand of the Greek god Mercury. Needless to say, the medical profession is about healing.
In the Gospel of the same feast day (John 3:13-17), Jesus is teaching Nicodemus , and during the course of instruction, says to him, “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, will have eternal life.”
Why did Jesus make this comparison between Moses’ bronze serpent and himself? We note that the bronze serpent was lifted up on a pole. So, people had to look up in order to be healed. Jesus is quoted as saying, “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.” (John 3:14-15) Jesus, most certainly, was referring to his hanging on the cross during his crucifiction. Those who saw and began to understand were saved.
Consequently, the key phrase here is lifted up. In the Gospels, we are aware that there are approximately three stages in Jesus being lifted up in the scheme of salvation. First, he is “lifted up” on the cross indicating the beginning of the last stage of his physical presence on earth. Second, Jesus is “lifted up” at the resurrection indicating his power of life over death. Third, Jesus is “lifted up” at the Ascension indicating that his work on earth is finished and is to be carried on by his disciples.
What are some probable lessons from the above readings (Numbers and John)? The first thing that comes to mind is the reality that all of us are “lifted up” in the sense that we are baptized. Baptism brings with it a genuine sense of responsibility of how we relate to/with other people. The cross reminds us of the final stages of Jesus’ act of salvation. And the more we believe in the life and work of Jesus, the more effective becomes our positive relationship to/with others.
A second possible lesson is that of becoming more dedicated to the cross of Christ. For example, a more reflective attempt at making the sign of the cross, whether leaving or entering the church, grace before/after meals, and other occasions as well.
There may be times when we complain about our fate in life. But when we are aware that we can be “lifted up” because of our Baptism and belief in Jesus’ life and activities, we undoubtdly can lift up others by our behavior.