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Thoughts from the Early Church
Exaltation of the Holy Cross
September 14, 2014

Commentary by Bede
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,
so must the Son of man be lifted up, so that all who believe in him
may not perish but may have eternal life.

With the wonderful skill he has in imparting heavenly teaching, the Lord of the teachers of the Mosaic law shows us that law’s spiritual meaning, as he recalls the old history and explains its symbolic reference to his own passion and to our salvation.

The Book of Numbers relates that the Israelites, wearied by the long hard journey in the wilderness, grumbled against the Lord and Moses, and therefore the Lord sent fiery serpents among them.

Many died of their bites, and when the people cried out to Moses and he prayed for them, the Lord commanded him to make a bronze serpent and set it up as a sign.

“Those who are bitten,” he said, “have but to look at it and they will live”; and so it happened.

Text Box:   Whoever believes in Christ not only escapes the pain of punishment but also receives a life that is eternal.Now the bites of fiery serpents are the evil temptations to sin that bring spiritual death to the soul deceived by them. It was good for the people who grumbled against the Lord to be prostrated by the bites of serpents, for this outward scourge would make them realize how much inward damage they suffered because of their grumbling.

The bronze serpent that was raised up so that those who were bitten might look at it and be healed represents our Redeemer in his passion on the cross, for the kingdom of death and sin is conquered only by faith in him.

The sins which drag both soul and body to destruction are well described as serpents, not only because they are fiery and poisonous and cunning enough to destroy us, but because a serpent persuaded our first parents, who were immortal, to commit the sin through which they became subject to death.

Our Lord, who came in the likeness of sinful flesh, is rightly portrayed as the bronze serpent because as the bronze serpent was the same as the fiery serpents except that it contained no poisonous or hurtful fire, and when it was raised up it healed those bitten by serpents, so also the Redeemer of humankind clothed himself not in sinful flesh, but in the likeness of sinful flesh, in which, by suffering death on the cross, he delivered those who believe in him from all sin and even from death itself.

“Therefore as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up”; for as those who looked at the bronze serpent set up as a sign were for a time healed of the physical death and injury produced by the serpents’ bites, so also those who look at the mystery of the Lord’s passion, believing, confessing, and sincerely imitating him, are saved completely and for ever from the death of both soul and body which they had incurred through sin.

Accordingly the text continues: “so that all who believe in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.” These words make it clear that whoever believes in Christ not only escapes the pain of punishment but also receives a life that is eternal.

And here we see the difference between symbol and truth, for the one prolongs this temporal life, while the other gives a life that will be endless.

We must make sure, however, that the truths our minds perceive are given fitting practical expression, so that by confessing the true faith, and living devout and disciplined lives, we may deserve to attain the fullness of the life which has no end.

(Homily 11, 18: CCL CXXII, 31517)

Bede (c. 673-735), who received the title of Venerable less than a century after his death, was placed at the age of seven in the monastery of Wearniouth, then ruled by Saint Better Biscop. From there he was sent to Jarrow, probably at the time of its foundation in about 681. At the age of thirty he was ordained priest. His whole life was devoted to the study of Scripture, to teaching, writing, and the prayer of the Divine Office. He was famous for his learning, although lie never went beyond the bounds of his native Northumbria. Bede is best known for his historical works, which earned him the title “Father of English History.” His Historia Ecelesiastica Gentis Anglorum is a primary source for early English history, especially valuable because of the care he took to give his authorities, and to separate historical fact from hearsay and tradition. In 1899 Bede was proclaimed a doctor of the Church.

Edith Barnecut, O. S. B. As a consultant for the International Committee for English in the Liturgy, Sr. Edith was responsible for the final version of many of the readings in the Liturgy of the Hours.
Copyright © 1994, New City Press.
All Rights Reserved.
Journey with the Fathers
Commentaries on the Sunday Gospels
- Year B, pp. 148-149.
Edith Barnecut, O. S. B., ed.
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