That Old Rugged Cross

Monday was the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, also known as the Feast of the Exultation of the Cross. You can read about it here or here. It was a good Mass with a moving homily about Christ hugging His Cross on the road to Calvary, and about the appropriate response to suffering (a topic which I find Catholic teaching particularly and uniquely beautiful on). But the readings were what caught my ear, so to speak.

The first reading was Nm 21:4b-9, with the relevant portion here:

In punishment the LORD sent among the people saraph serpents, which bit the people so that many of them died. Then the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned in complaining against the LORD and you. Pray the LORD to take the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people, and the LORD said to Moses, “Make a saraph and mount it on a pole, and if any who have been bitten look at it, they will live.” Moses accordingly made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole,and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.

Here’s what I noticed. Serpents represent sin or Satan (a motif we see from Genesis 3 to Revelation 20:2). So the people’s real problem is that by rebelling from God, they’ve invited sin and death, here represented by the serpents which God sends among them. When Moses prays to God, His instructions are to take something which isn’t a serpent, craft it into a saraph (literally “fiery serpent”*), and mount it on a pole. Does this look familiar?

In 2 Corinthians 5:21, St. Paul tells us that “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” And He wasn’t just the sinless made to be sin: He was also mounted upon a Cross. So Christ became that Serpent on the Pole, so that we might be healed of the wounds of the real serpent, sin and Satan. And just like the people in the OT, those of us who throw ourselves at the mercy of Christ will live. This whole thing is so striking, that I have to think of it as prophetic. After all, it’s not like Moses (or whoever wrote Numbers) would have known that crucifixion was going to develop as a punishment; and we know that the Crucifixion of Christ wasn’t just something which the Apostles made up (there are secular records). Yet there are all sorts of these weird scenes and statements in the Old Testament which are weird and seemingly senseless on their own, but which make perfect sense in context. Deuteronomy 21:23, for example, says “anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” Which is pretty arbitrary seeming, until Galatians 3:13 brings it back to this idea of Christ, on the Cross, becoming the curse of sin for us.

Christ draws it all together, and some more, in John 3 (right before the famous John 3:16), where He says:

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.e]”>

This, of course, was from Monday’s Gospel. This is also one of the best, and most obvious, reasons that Catholics generally use Crucifixes, rather than just Crosses. Because it’s in looking upon our Saviour on the Cross, not just upon the Cross itself. And that’s a lesson we’d figured out by Paul’s time, as he makes apparent in Galatians 3:1: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as Crucified?

*Not to be confused with a Seraph, an angelic creature: as in, Seraphim.

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