by Father Mike Stubbs
How something is displayed makes a great deal of difference. That is why we place paintings in picture frames, instead of just hanging them on the wall as is. The frames show the artwork to better advantage. That is why stores spend money putting their goods on displays that will entice customers to buy them. How something is displayed matters a lot. That also holds true for articles of religious faith.
Sunday’s first reading, Nm 21:4b-9, provides important background for the Gospel, Jn 3:13-17, since the Gospel reading directly refers to it. The Numbers reading describes an incident that took place while the Israelites are journeying in the desert, before they enter the Promised Land. They complain to Moses about the food and scarcity of water. To punish them, God sends among them poisonous snakes, which kill many of the people. Consequently, they pray to God to save them. In response to their prayers, God has Moses make a serpent of bronze, to heal those who gaze upon it.
The pole in the story serves the purpose of displaying the bronze serpent. Mounted on the pole, the bronze serpent is elevated and easier for the crowd to see. That is important for those bitten by the serpents, because they are healed whenever they look at the bronze serpent.
The pole anticipates the cross on which Jesus will be crucified. Once again, Jesus will be lifted high, so that those who look upon him will be saved.
In John’s Gospel, seeing is believing. Consider the healing of the man born blind in Jn 9 and the appearance of the risen Christ to Thomas (Jn 20: 24-29). Throughout John’s Gospel, “to see Jesus” means to see, to understand, what Jesus is. And whoever understands what Jesus truly is will believe in him. In that way, seeing is believing.
The cross then, like the pole, enables vision. That is clearly true in the physical sense, insofar as the cross lifts Jesus up for better viewing. But beyond that, the cross reveals Jesus’ true nature, insofar as the cross is the instrument of Jesus’ death. It shows us someone who was willing to die for us. It reveals a love so deep that it must have come from God.
The cross of Jesus Christ puts that reality on dramatic display for all to see. That
is why we call it the holy cross. It displays the mystery of our redemption.