Triumph of the Cross
“You decreed that man should be saved through the wood of the cross. The tree of man’s defeat became his tree of victory; where life was lost, there life has been restored through Christ our Lord.” (from the Preface for the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross)
The prophetic image from the Book of Numbers of the bronze serpent, lifted up in the desert of the Exodus by Moses as God had commanded, is explained by Jesus in His words to Nicodemus in John’s Gospel (3:13-17) of which vs. 16, “God so loved the world…”:
“No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Son of Man who is in heaven; and the Son of Man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
The contradictory sign of the bronze serpent became the gateway to survival in the desert and hence life in the Promised Land. The contradictory sign of Our Savior Crucified becomes the way to eternal life, “so that through him the world might be saved.”
As familiar as we might be with the Old Testament prophecy and its fulfillment in Jesus on the Cross, the iconography puts most folks off. I was reminded of that not so long ago when I set up a copy of my coat-of-arms at the entrance of the chapel: “What’s that snake with the cross doing there? Why the snake!” Both the bronze serpent and Our Savior Crucified seem to be able to shock even those saved through water and the Wood.
Although I may not be able to substantiate the claim that this part of John Chapter 3 is the most quoted passage of the New Testament, I’d bet that if it’s beat out for first place by parts of the Nativity and Passion narratives then it comes in a close third for all-time oral Bible quotes. Nonetheless, Catholics make strange when faced with the serpent and my bet would be that the image would appall those fervent sons and daughters of the reformation who are continually “john-3:16-ing” or “god-so-loved-the-world-ing” themselves and anyone they can witness to.
God knew what He was doing and the prophecy points most effectively to the scandal of the Cross for which the Transfiguration had been meant to be the antidote. The Cross without the Corpus, maybe for reasons of our psychology if not by way of our sins, sadly enough seldom points to Jesus lifted up and drawing us all to Himself. This state of affairs reminds us of another prophetic reaction: namely, the shudder passing through the crowd which looked away or covered their eyes, unwilling to lift their eyes to face Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, “bruised, derided, cursed, defiled…” for our sins. Why the serpent on the cross? Perhaps the serpent is there to throw us off balance and open our eyes to the Sign of Contradiction, our Savior Crucified?
Let me simply formulate a tiny aspiration and a fervent hope on the eve, that the Feasts of the Triumph of the Cross and of Our Lady of Sorrows might not escape our gaze this year. May we discover the Cross, soaked and sanctified for us with His Blood (the gateway to heaven), and if we have effectively filtered out of the picture and our consciousness His Body lifted up upon that Cross, may the Sorrowful Mother’s tears catch our attention and cause us to look again and this time see, no more put off by the snake than we are by God’s Servant and His Son!
“You decreed that man should be saved through the wood of the cross. The tree of man’s defeat became his tree of victory; where life was lost, there life has been restored through Christ our Lord.”