|Snakes! Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?*
The Fifth Tuesday of Lent.
Lessons from the feria, according to the ordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• Numbers 21: 4-9.
• Psalm 102: 2-3, 16-21.
• John 8: 21-30.
Lessons from the feria, according to the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• Daniel 14: 27-42.
• Psalm 42: 1, 3.
• John 7: 1-13.
The Sixth Tuesday of the Great Fast; and, the Feast of the Holy Martyr Agapius & His Companions.
Lesson for the Sixth Hour with Holy Communion,** according to the Ruthenian recension of the Byzantine Rite:
• Isaiah: 49: 6-10.
8:37 AM 3/15/2016 — Last Saturday's Gospel lesson treated us to a cameo appearance of Nicodemus, the honest Pharisee who wants to give our Lord a hearing, and who, after the Passion, would be referred to by Saint John as a secret disciple of our Lord. When he has his nighttime meeting with Jesus, our Lord will cite for him a Scripture passage from the Book of Numbers, in which he will say that 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” (John 3: 14-15 RSV); and, in today's Gospel lesson our Lord refers to this passage from Numbers again, telling the Pharisees that “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM…(John 8: 28 RM3), applying to Himself the identification used by God when He spoke to Moses from the Burning Bush in Exodus (cf. 3: 3ff). In today's Old Testament lesson we are given to read this very passage from the Book of Numbers to which our Lord is referring. When the Israelites were wandering in the desert, they were bitten by poisonous snakes; and, God told Moses that if he made a bronze snake and lifted it up on a pole, anyone who looked at it would be saved. But our Lord points out that the snake that Moses lifted up could only cure the people of a physical illness. They still had to be cured of the spiritual illness of sin. And that is to be done not by lifting up a snake on a pole, but by lifting up a man on a poll, a man who is also God. What our Lord is trying to explain to Nicodemus is that salvation will come from the cross. We know, of course, from our perspective, that the lifting up of the snake by Moses was an archetype of our Lord being lifted up on the Cross, and our Lord's dialog with Nicodemus was a prediction of His Passion; but, in reading this lesson from Numbers today, we find an element that so often escapes us.
The wanderings of the Israelites in the desert can be—and should be—seen as a prefiguring of Lent: having released them from bondage in Exodus, God allows them to wander in the desert for forty years as a purification in preparation for establishing them as a great kingdom, in much the same way that Christ, having redeemed us from our sins, suffers us to be purified every year during this Holy Season in preparation for celebrating the true redemption that occurred with his resurrection from the dead, and which will be ratified for the faithful when he comes again in His glory. As chapter twenty-one of Numbers begins, just before the first verses of our first lesson, God grants His people a tremendous victory over the Canaanites; and, right on the heals of this, almost as if it never happened, everyone is complaining: there's not enough food, there's not enough water, “Why didst thou ever bring us away from Egypt, only to die in the desert?” (21: 5 Knox), almost as if God had done nothing for them.
And is that not, so often, the story of our own spiritual journey? We receive so much from God; yet, the moment some hardship, some suffering, some trial comes our way, the first words that fall from our lips in our prayer is “O God, woe is me!” as if our life is nothing but one big penance. And this is where what happens in the Book of Numbers is crucial: “In punishment the Lord sent among the people saraph serpents, which bit the people so that many of them died” (21: 6 RM3). The snakes were sent by God. Now, He also told Moses what he had to do to save the people, but He was saving them from His own punishment. He punished them to purify them; once they were purified, He saved them.
God, in His permissive will, allows us to suffer many things, and we react to that often in a very infantile way: we think it's unfair; we think it's unjust; we think we deserve better because we've lived a good life; we blame God, basically, for not making sense in His treatment of us, or what we perceive is His treatment of us.
When I was in the seminary in New York, we were privileged to receive a visit from Mother Teresa;—now blessed Teresa—and, as I listened to her speak, I remember having the impression that here was someone who was so obviously convinced that God had saved her from something. What it was she thought God had saved her from we'll never know, but she did say something in her very brief talk to us that resonated: she said, “What is the point of being saved if there's nothing to be saved from?”
Expécta Dóminum, viríliter age: et confortétur cor tuum, et sústine Dóminum. The words of the Entrance Antiphon we read together from Psalm 27: “Wait patiently for the Lord to help thee; be brave, and let thy heart take comfort; wait patiently for the Lord” (v. 14 Knox).
* Cf. Raiders 15: 4.
** In the Byzantine Tradition—as in most Eastern Christian traditions, both Orthodox and Catholic—the Eucharist is not celebrated on the weekdays of the Great Fast. In some traditions, the faithful are expected to fast from the Blessed Eucharist during this time, abstaining from Holy Communion except on Saturdays and Sundays.
In other traditions, including the Ruthenian recension, Holy Communion may be distributed to the faithful daily provided that the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated. On Wednesday and Friday evenings, the Divine Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts is celebrated, consisting of a form of Solemn Vespers coupled with a Communion Service in which the Eucharist confected on the previous Sunday may be received by the faithful. On the other weekdays, another service—usually the Sixth Hour of the Divine Office or a simpler service called "Typica"—may be celebrated at which Holy Communion may also be offered to the faithful. Notice that the readings for these services do not include a Gospel lesson; a Gospel would only be sung on significant Holy Days or during the Presanctified Liturgies of Holy and Great Week.