Salvation from the serpent

Crucifixion of the Lord, Stavronikita Monastery, Mount Athos

The Gospel passage on the Sunday before the Exaltation of the Cross is from Saint John and it recounts a portion of the dialogue with Nicodemus, the pharisee who, until the Lord’s death, was always present, even if more in the shadows. So, the Lord tells Nicodemus: “No one has ascended to heaven but He Who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man Who is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3.13-15).

We know this image very well. One of the trials endured by the ever-grumbling Israelite people was the appearance of venomous snakes in the desert (cf. Numbers 21.6-9). At that time, God taught Moses to confect a serpent from bronze – which later was preserved for hundreds of years and which eventually was considered to be an idol, Nehushtan, that King Hezekiah destroyed (4 Kingdoms 18.4). Anyways, whoever looked upon this bronze serpent was healed from the snakes’ venom.

Thus, the Lord offers Himself as this image. At the time of their conversation, Nicodemus had no way of knowing what the words “even so must the Son of Man be lifted up” could mean. Eventually, he was to witness the event, helping take down the Lord’s Body from the Cross (cf. John 19.39-42). The “exaltation of the Son of Man” was His ascent upon the Cross (cf. John 12.32-33). “That whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” In other words, just as the bronze serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness could heal just by looking at it, likewise the Lord heals us from the venomous bites of the devil if we look upon Him.

Behold an image which, at first sight, appears somewhat magical, like in the movies: we make the sign of the Cross and the demons vanish. It’s true, the demons are scared of the Holy Cross. But for it to become salvific, we need to “look” at the Lord Who is lifted upon it. We can look at the Lord in many ways. One is this: when we’re on our cross – from the smallest things that prevent us from smiling one day, to the greater mishaps like being patient with our boss, enduring our fatigue and exhaustion and headaches, etc., because all of these are aspects of our cross – to begin to pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, the sinner!” Then this prayer becomes efficient and we’ll see how much power wells forth from the Lord’s Cross, which helps us bear our own cross. It goes without saying that such a prayer is more authentic. We’re closer to Him when we entreat Him from our cross. When, from our cross, we say, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, the sinner, because I can’t bear this without You,” and I unite this with my breathing, well, that is prayer. That’s when our cross, and our “looking at” the Lord lifted up on the Cross, becomes salvific and redemptive.

We usually, like everyone, pray to escape our cross. But this isn’t right. For us to taste of His power and of His will for us, it’s good that when we’re on our cross, to entreat Him for the strength to bear it. Only through the cross can our heart be humbled, it’s the only way our heart can learn. And there’s another advantage of the Jesus Prayer said from our cross: it’s more collected and focused. May God help us.