Today, on the Sunday before the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, we hear Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, who had come to ask Him about salvation. And at the heart of this salvation that Jesus Christ came to bring to our world is the great mystery of the Cross. For it is through His death and apparent defeat on the Cross that He has in fact conquered death and opened the way to life for all who follow Him.
In this passage, Jesus refers to the bronze serpent that God had instructed the prophet Moses to place on a pole when the people of Israel were wandering in the wilderness (Numbers 21: 9). Many of them were suffering from snake bites, but when they looked at this bronze serpent they were healed.
This is one of the Old Testament passages that points to the Cross of Christ. However, as Saint John Chrysostom reminds us, the healing that people found in this serpent was only a very faint anticipation of Christ’s victory on the Cross:
…there the hanging serpent healed the bites of serpents, here the Crucified Jesus cured the wounds inflicted by the spiritual dragon; there he who looked with his bodily eyes was healed, here he who beholds with the eyes of his understanding put off all his sins; there that which hung was brass fashioned into the likeness of a serpent, here it was the Lord’s Body, built by the Spirit; there a serpent bit and a serpent healed, here death destroyed and a Death saved.
This great victory of Christ on the Cross is central to our faith, yet it is also a great paradox and goes beyond our logical thought, which is why Saint Paul called it “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1: 23). Indeed, the death of Christ on the Cross has become for us the source of life.