The first reading of Sunday’s Mass, on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, sets a puzzling tale before us.
On the way through the wilderness the people lost patience. They spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in this wilderness? For there is neither bread nor water here; we are sick of this unsatisfying food.’
At this God sent fiery serpents among the people; their bite brought death to many in Israel. The people came and said to Moses, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Intercede for us with the Lord to save us from these serpents.’ Moses interceded for the people, and the Lord answered him, ‘Make a fiery serpent and put it on a standard. If anyone is bitten and looks at it, he shall live.’ So Moses fashioned a bronze serpent which he put on a standard, and if anyone was bitten by a serpent, he looked at the bronze serpent and lived.
There is a mythic quality to this story. Fiery serpents (real and living, such as is often depicted being overcome by St George) finding a counterpart in a bronze cast serpent (once fiery but now cooled down and mounted on a standard pole), and their death-dealing bite finding its antidote. The teller of the tale doesn’t seem to find any problem with this tale despite the Decalogue’s injunction against making graven images.
The story finds its echo in the Cross of Christ, the one who is seen as sinner and cursed by God and yet is found to be Saviour and the one who frees us from sin.
The story starts with ‘the people’ losing patience – with God, with Moses? Does it matter, once you lose patience you seem to lose it with everyone all at the same time.
- When did you last lose it? Why?
- Have you found it again? How?
- What have you learnt from the experience? And what from the experience might you helpfully bring to God in prayer?
Image found here.