Jesus tells Nicodemus that just as the bronze serpent was an instrument of healing, so too will the Son of Man be the source of salvation when he is lifted up on the Cross. ~ John 3:14-21.
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” This image refers to the time that God sent Seraph serpents among the people as a punishment for their complaints against God and Moses. Those who were bitten but still lived begged Moses to intercede for them. God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and mount it on a pole. “And everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live” (Nm 21:9). Why would looking upon the bronze serpent bring healing? Because it symbolizes acknowledging the consequences of one’s actions. It means looking upon what we have done to ourselves and to others. This is the first step in healing. The serpent mounted on the pole is a symbol of Jesus upon the cross. On the cross we see what our sins have done. We have killed Beauty, Truth, and Goodness. As we grow older, the cross is set before our eyes more and more as our sinful past looms up before us and we see the damage that lies in the wake of our lives.
But more that an icon of our sins, the Cross is the manifestation of God’s infinite mercy. It is God’s promise that the final judgement upon our lives is mercy and forgiveness. “Christ’s death on the cross is a judgement of judgement, ” Maximus the Confessor puts it (Clement 49). How can this be otherwise? Jesus, who allowed himself to be murdered, offered his murderers forgiveness as he hung dying. In the Cross God reveals completely unmerited forgiveness.
If, when we look upon the Cross, we see only our sins, we are not looking deeply enough. Sin, which is an offense against God, cannot be separated from God’s forgiveness. Such a myopic way of looking at sin can result in what Saint Teresa considers one of the great dangers of the spiritual life—discouragement. If we look at our sins isolated from God’s mercy, we do not perceive them correctly. Teresa tells us that we should look at our sins against the backdrop of God’s mercy, as if we were looking at a black dot against a white background. Excessive introspection upon one’s sinfulness is dangerous because we see only the black dot. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “The belief that Jesus is referring to is trust in God’s mercy.
~ A Meditation by Fr. Marc Foley, O.C.D.