The Brazen Serpent, Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641), 1618–1620; Museo del Prado, Madrid

Fr Neil’s homily at Mass on the Fourth Sunday in Lent (14 March)

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

This verse is probably the most well known in all of scripture. I am sure I am not the only one to remember the old guy in his Union Jack top hat holding a big placard with this verse on at all England international games.

That depth of that divine love is revealed by Christ in a conversation with Nicodemus when he utters these incredible words, ‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.’ This lifting up indicates the depths to which humanity has fallen and from which it must be saved.

Our reading from the second Book of Chronicles illustrates this well with the unfaithfulness of the priests and people and how their actions were abominable, polluting the temple of God’s presence, rejecting the commandments and despising the prophets. The inevitable consequences are the judgement of God and the collapse of their society into disorder and self-destruction: their abandonment to sin, physically revealed by their exile into captivity in Babylon.

We should not be surprised that our own society is falling into disintegration as it in turn abandons God, the Church and her teachings. There is worse to come as the judgement of God also abandons us to the captivity of our own self-corruption: spiritual, emotional, psychological and physical suffering and death is not only accepted but applauded, and is slowly being written into the law of the land.

The image that Christ chooses at this point as an illustration is informative. He uses the well-known story from the Book of Numbers where yet again the people of God moan against God and Moses even to the point that they speak about ‘loathing this worthless food’ in reference to the heavenly manna — the bread of angels. The fiery serpents are sent among them — in Hebrew seraph, which may allude to the angel of death that passed over Egypt. Certainly these fiery serpents are a symbol of death and their bite is death itself. The people’s only salvation and healing was to look upon that which was raised up on the pole.

The image of a serpent lifted up is interesting. It is the serpent in the garden of Eden that led to man’s fall, bringing sin and death into the world. Only when death is nailed and lifted up upon the cross ‘that whoever believes in him may have eternal life,’ can Man be healed of the sting of death.

It seems that humanity has had written into our consciousness that death is somehow the answer to our problems. From the moment Cain thought that the murder of his brother Abel was an answer to his problem, we have diabolically misapplied this deeper truth. Wars and terror attacks, murder, the annihilation objectification and enslavement of others, the mutilation of our bodies, destruction of marriage, the killing of the unborn — and the euthanasia of the elderly, suffering and disabled — are all enacted and justified as if they are an answer to our deepest problems.

Only now are we beginning to grasp the depth of God’s love for us revealed in Christ. It is his death and his lifting up upon the cross that provides the answer to our alienation and desire for reconciliation.

As we heard, St Paul also refers in his epistle to God’s mercy and ‘the great love with which he loved us.’ He unfolds this mystery a little further in a letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor 5:21) when he writes of Christ, “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The serpent is the image of death and Christ not only became sin for our sake, but as Lord of life he embraces death — and nails it to the cross so that he might put an end to death and make it the means of our salvation.

Christ had already anticipated these events when before his Passion he had told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

The Lord raised up upon the Cross is the One we are to look towards to find the healing for the sting of death. We are to embrace the Cross and know that, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

It is why we cannot, as has been the modern trend, lose the language of talking about the sacrifice of the Mass, the death that was embraced so that we might receive and participate in the resurrected and divine life.

There is no true life and love experienced in our fallen world without the need for a dying to self. The divine mercy and love revealed by Christ show the depths to which God was willing to go that he might make us alive together with Christ and raise us up with him.

“For God did not send the Son into the world, to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”