Sunday Scripture Readings

EXALTATION OF THE HOLY CROSS, SEPTEMBER 14 Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 78; Philippians 2:6-11; John 3:13-17 OUR GOOD NEWS: The Cross — Sign of God’s triumphant forgiving love, offering eternal life instead of deserved punish-ment. The story of Israel already in its earliest years revealed a contrast between God — loving, giving and forgiving — and the people — selfish, disobedient and ungrateful. The latter had been a motley group of slaves in Egypt, suddenly and spectacularly liberated by divine power, miraculously guided and protected through desert and hostile countries into a land of their own. Today’s first reading is of special significance because it recounts the last in a long line of infidelities during 40 years of wandering, before entry into their land. Thus, this was the most shameful of apostasies and also very dangerous. Israel was being decimated at the very moment she was about to realize God’s final and greatest gift. "With their patience worn out by the journey, the people complained against God and Moses. ‘Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water?’" The people were forever given to complaining and whining; now they throw an absurd and quite unjustified temper tantrum. Complaints are prudently directed against Moses, but in reality it is God whom they blame. Their protests, when examined carefully, constitute formal acts of unfaith. In fact, the Lord had brought them out of Egypt to live in their own land, not die in the desert. True enough, there is no food or water in this desert, a situation for which God regularly compensated through miraculous acts. "In punishment the Lord sent among the people saraph serpents, which bit the people so that many of them died." Though severe, divine punishment was an expression of love rather than judgment, a needed discipline to bring the people to their senses. "Moses prayed for the people, and the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a saraph and lift it up on a pole, and if anyone who has been bitten looks at it, he will recover.’" The bronze serpent (saraph) was no talisman. Magic is a human attempt to control and force the hand of divine or demonic powers; here, by contrast, the object had been chosen by God and made under His instruction. To look upon it was an act of faith that compensated for faithless complaining, a trusting appeal to a forgiving rather than condemning Lord when all human remedies proved worthless. This ancient story helps us understand Jesus’ death and Resurrection. "The Son of Man came down from heaven in order to be lifted up." Looking upon Jesus crucified bestows fullness of life, an act of faith imperfectly anticipated through trusting acceptance of healing from a fatal snakebite. But the Cross must not be taken in isolation from the Resurrection and exaltation. Through it, the Son of Man was lifted up — returned and ascended — to heaven. Like Jesus, we are only "lifted up" to glory through being "lifted up" in patient endurance that is God’s will for us.

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