September 14, 2002 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Triumph of the Cross
Reading (Numbers 21:4b-9) Gospel (St. John 3:13-17)
In the Gospel reading this morning, Jesus tells us that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up. Now if we look at the two different occasions here, as we heard in the first reading from the Book of Numbers, because of the sins of the people God sent the seraph serpents among the people to bite them, and the only way they were healed was to look at the bronze image of the serpent; anyone who looked upon it was healed. One can look at Jesus, then, and we see immediately a difference, because Our Lord tells us that God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him. God had originally sent the serpents as a means of destruction among the people, but He sent His Son as a means of salvation for us.
If we look again at what happened, Moses had to make an image of the serpent. But Jesus is not merely an image; He is the reality. He is God and He is man. We did not put an image of a human being up on a tree - we nailed a human being to a tree. More than that, we nailed God to a tree. But He accepted that. He came into this world and allowed Himself to be bitten by the serpent rather than the way it was in the Old Testament where it was the serpent biting His people. This time, God allowed Himself to be bitten by the serpent, and He allowed Himself then to be hung upon the tree.
Another difference is that as time went along, as we read in Sacred Scripture, the prophet Jeremiah had to take the serpent some hundreds of years later and break it up into pieces and destroy it because the people began to worship the serpent. We are told in the Book of Numbers that anyone who looked upon the serpent was healed. The problem was, of course, they did not recognize that it was not a piece of bronze that healed them. God had that serpent put upon the pole so the people had to look upon the means of their affliction, and they had to call out to God. But, as the years went along, they forgot that latter part and all they remembered was that when anyone looked upon the serpent they were healed. Consequently, they started to believe that it was somehow the power of the bronze serpent that healed their forefathers. So they literally and actually began to worship the bronze serpent until the prophet Jeremiah, some 600 years before Our Lord came into this world, destroyed it so that the people would stop worshiping an idol and begin worshiping God.
For us, we too must look upon the Cross. In this case, it is not looking upon the one who has caused the difficulty for us; but rather, it is looking upon the One who has taken on the penance for us, the One who has allowed Himself to be bitten so that we would not, the One who took on the punishment so that we could be healed. And when we look upon the One whom we have put upon the Cross, the One who crushed the head of the serpent, we do indeed worship Him - and we worship Him appropriately and fittingly because He is God and He is the means of our salvation, He is the means of our healing. The people of the Old Testament needed to look beyond the bronze serpent and look to God, who would bring about the healing. But for us, we look upon God who is hung upon the tree and we worship Him.
What has happened, however, in our day, is that the false prophets of today have attempted to destroy not the bronze serpent but Jesus Christ, who was hung upon the tree. They try to tell us, as the prophet Jeremiah spoke, that we cannot worship the One who is hung upon the tree; instead, what they want is for us to go back and worship the serpent and forget about God. But when we recognize the One whom we nailed to the tree, the One who became the price of our salvation, when we recognize that the only means to healing is Jesus Christ Himself, then we realize we cannot destroy that image because what has happened is, in Christ, the false image has been destroyed and the reality has been exposed. The reality is human sin. The reality is our own brokenness and our own frailty that has been taken on by Christ when He allowed Himself to be broken, when He allowed His human frailty to be destroyed on the Cross so that in the Resurrection it would all be healed.
But for us, we must always keep in mind that there is no Resurrection without the Cross. And so, we not only look upon the One who was hung upon the tree, but we look at the tree itself and we adore the Cross. We worship the Cross, not in the sense that the Cross is God, but in the sense that the Cross became the only means to our salvation, the means by which Jesus Christ has achieved the salvation of our souls by allowing His body to be destroyed on the Cross. He allowed Himself physically to be destroyed so that what we had done spiritually could be destroyed.
God went to the Cross so that the ancient serpent would be destroyed once and for all. We have nothing to fear of Satan. Certainly, he has power, and we know that he likes to tempt and he can cause us lots of trouble, but we have Jesus Christ and we have the Cross of Jesus Christ. In the Cross is victory. In the Cross is the ultimate power. Saint Paul speaks of it and he says, "It is a scandal to the Jews and it is weakness for the Greeks, but for us who believe, it is the power, it is the glory of God." We cannot remove the scandal of the Cross. We cannot remove the weakness, because we recognize it is only in that - in looking upon the most scandalous thing that we have ever done in human history and in looking upon the weakness of Jesus Christ upon the Cross - only there do we recognize the power of God, the love of God, the glory of God, being expressed in its most perfect form for all of us to understand.
It is only by looking upon the Cross and upon the One who is hung upon the Cross that we have life and salvation. And so, unlike the ancient serpent - the bronze serpent, that is, that Moses hung upon the pole - for us, we can truly look upon the Cross and the One who was hung upon the Cross and we can worship Him. And in worshiping Him, neither He or we are destroyed; but rather, in worshiping Him, sin and the true serpent are destroyed and we have life for our souls.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.