The Serpent and the Cross
4th Sunday of Lent (B)

Antonio P. Pueyo
Reproduced with Permission

I nearly stepped on a huge cobra while hiking during a retreat. The adrenalin rush enabled me to perform a record-breaking broad jump. Snakes keep me athletically fit. One time I was leaning on a tree when a terrified companion pointed at me and shouted. A snake was about to bite my neck. Again, I did an olympic-size jump. I have many other close encounters with cobras and pythons and these make me very careful whenever I am in forests or grassy areas.

Snake venom can kill but it is also the same venom that can save life. There are laboratories that specialize in harvesting venom from different kinds of poisonous snakes in order to produce the anti-venom to treat snake bites. That may explain why the symbol of the medical profession is the caduceus or the intertwined snakes on a pole. Not too far from my place, a healer has become famous for his treatment of various diseases by extracting cobra blood and making his patients drink them fresh.

I am recalling these stories to give some background introduction to a passage from the gospel reading this Sunday where Jesus said to Nicodemus, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (Jn.3:14). Jesus was referring to the incident when the Israelites escaped Egypt and were crossing the desert. Moses made a bronze serpent and put it in a pole so that those bitten by snakes would look at it and be healed (Num. 21:9). The serpent that kills became the serpent that heals.

This brings us to the cross. The cross that kills becomes the cross that heals. Jesus, the Son of Man was lifted up on the cross and died there. The gospel of John makes use of the literary style of double meaning in using the term “lifted up”. Jesus was not just lifted up on the cross. He was also lifted up to the Father by His resurrection from the dead. The cross that was the symbol of death became the symbol of life.

We may go farther on our reflection. The suffering that diminishes us may be the same suffering that can magnify us. As examples we may cite the various letters from prison that became sources of strength and inspiration. Our great national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal wrote the beautiful poem “Mi Ultimo Adios” while waiting for his execution. Who can forget its opening lines, “Adios Patria adorada, region del sol querida.”

From his experiences of Hitler’s concentration camp, Dr. Viktor Frankl came up with logotheraphy and his book on “Man’s Search for Meaning.” The theologian Bonhoeffer who resisted Hitler wrote his “Letters from Prison”. St. Paul himself wrote some of his letters from prison (Col. 4:7-10). He mentions a faithful companion who carries his messages, Tychnicus. It is this same disciple who carried his letter to the Ephesians where he said in today’s second reading, “For it is by God’s grace that you have been saved through faith. It is not the result of your own efforts, but God’s gift, so that no one can boast about it” (Eph. 2:8-9).

God saved us through suffering.The famous line from the gospel says it all, “Yes, God so

loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him may not be lost, but may have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). This is the mystery of the cross. God could have saved us some other way but God chose the cross.

The cross is the way to the resurrection. Suffering is the way to healing. The serpent that kills is the serpent that heals.

Action starter: Look at your own suffering. Can it become life-giving?