In order to really understand what Jesus means in this Gospel passage about the serpents Moses lifted up we have to go back to the Book of Numbers 21:4-9. During their long wanderings in the desert the People of Israel lost patience and spoke against God: Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in this wilderness.
At this God sent fiery serpents among the people and their bite brought death to many. Acknowledging their sin they asked Moses to intercede with God on their behalf. God then told Moses to make a fiery serpent out of bronze and put it on a standard. Anyone who was bitten should look at it and then he would be saved.
The snake is a powerful symbol of evil; the fact that it slithers silently on the ground and its deadly poisonous bite make it a potent symbol of evil. This is acknowledged in the story of Adam and Eve; the serpent tempts them and they are banished from the Garden of Eden.
It seems odd then that the serpent or snake when it is lifted up should bring salvation. But the idea was that the very thing which brought about death should after the intervention of God bring about salvation. You could call it a sort of ‘hair of the dog’ theology.
Bishops in the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches don’t carry a crozier in the form of a shepherd’s crook like the Roman Catholic and Anglican Bishops. They carry the staff of Moses with the bronze serpent. Our Bishops carry the crook to highlight their pastoral role in caring for their flock. The Eastern Rite Bishops carry the staff of Moses because it is a powerful sign of salvation and it highlights their role in interceding for the people.
The enigmatic opening statement, ‘the Son of Man must be lifted up,’ surely points directly to Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus clearly knew that it was on the cross that he would die. The cross, that symbol of a dreadful and ignominious death, was to become the greatest possible symbol of life and salvation.
We stare at a Roman killing apparatus, the cross and we find life! It is extraordinary and paradoxical but then God is exactly that—as extraordinary and paradoxical as it is possible to get! The cross is the symbol par excellence of our salvation. It is a meditation in opposites. In it we see death—the direct result of sin. Sin brings death, we know this deep in our hearts but yet we are strangely attracted by it. In the cross we see human cruelty and spite writ large. But in the Cross, we too see pure innocence in the person of Christ. In him we see everything that we want to be, he is goodness and kindness personified.
The lifting up of Jesus on the cross to display him to the rude and mocking populace in fact lifts him up to his Father; the action is transformed into its opposite: from ignominy to exaltation. So, in the cross we see death and we see life. We see the last breath of the suffering Jesus and the first breath of our Risen Lord. In the cross we see the climactic moment of all human history; the focus from which everything else takes its meaning. We are truly able to look at the cross and see our salvation, we are able to look at the cross and unite ourselves with Christ and experience the power of his love in deep moments of prayer.
It is only right and fitting that in every home there should be a crucifix in a place of prominence. This is the sign of what life is all about, this is the sign of our faith. Somehow a simple plain cross doesn’t have the same impact as a crucifix—the person of Jesus is missing—and it is harder to see the strong contrasts that the cross represents.
Nicodemus was a leading Jew and a Pharisee who came to see Jesus by night. He was a scholar, even Jesus refers to him as a teacher. I imagine that he was quite a gentleman and it is evident that Jesus enjoys his company. Jesus goes to some lengths to explain his mission to him and just before today’s passage he tells him about the need for a man to be born again. Then Jesus moves on and speaks to Nicodemus the words in today’s Gospel. Nicodemus comes by night but Jesus’ final words to him are: The man who lives by the truth comes out into the light, so that it may be plainly seen that what he does is done in God.
This was a powerful challenge for Nicodemus who came to see Jesus only at night. He privately believed in Jesus but did not want this to be openly known. His connection with Jesus, if made public, would have resulted in loss of position, power, esteem and friendship. But Jesus tells him straight to his face that he should walk in the light. He should declare himself.
We all have something of Nicodemus in us. Its OK here in Church on a Sunday morning—we are all Catholics or at least sympathetic to Catholicism. Its OK in the Social Club—nobody minds even if you talk about religion. But elsewhere? At work, in school, in the pub, at the leisure centre—well it just doesn’t seem to be prudent to declare your faith too openly in those places.
Conversion is an ongoing process; it’s not a flash of light and then a dive-in-the-deep-end type of thing. It is a gradual exploration and easing oneself into Christianity. The engagement with Jesus should gradually deepen over one’s lifetime. The longer you live the more you get to know him and the more you realise the deep truth of everything that he has said.
Nicodemus is like this. Jesus challenges him to his face to make his faith known but Nicodemus is not yet ready. He moves slowly but steadily; the next time he makes an appearance (7:49) it is during a controversy about Jesus in the Sanhedrin and Nicodemus speaks up for Jesus when he says: Surely the law does not allow us to pass judgement on a man without giving him a hearing and discovering what he is about.
He had already given Jesus a hearing, that’s our passage today and he wanted the other Pharisees to do the same. He had discovered what he was about and obviously come to a favourable judgement and thought that they might come to the same view. But he was accused: Are you a Galilean too? So for fear of being expelled from the synagogue (12:42) he keeps his mouth shut.
But he goes on believing in Jesus and he next appears in John’s Gospel after the crucifixion. He brings about a hundred pounds of spices and, together with Joseph of Arimathaea, wrapped the body of Jesus with the spices in the linen cloth. This is further evidence of his faith in Jesus and although we know no more about him we can imagine that his faith in Jesus grew and that there eventually came a time when he was able to declare himself openly for Jesus.
Our faith may too be sometimes a bit covert. We might want to be discreet and not make a fool of ourselves. But we have to ask ourselves if this is what Jesus really wants from us. Aren’t the words he spoke to Nicodemus also spoken to us: The man who lives by the truth comes out into the light, so that it may be plainly seen that what he does is done in God.
As Kierkegaard said: It is so much easier to become a Christian when you aren’t one than to become one when you assume you already are.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket