[Consonant with both Anglicanism’s and monasticism’s love of patristic theology-spirituality, I occasionally post selections from Durham University’s two-year lectionary for the Divine Office that draws mostly from patristic writings. The lectionary was initially edited by Stephen Mark Holmes (University of Edinburgh School of Divinity) and subsequently re-edited and formatted by Michele Freyhauf (Durham University). Click here for the link to the lectionary.]
Patristic Lectionary—2 April, Thursday in Passion Week, Fifth Week of Lent
[The image is Gustave Doré’s “The Bronze Serpent.” It is from the series of wood engravings for the 1866 French translation of the Vulgate Bible, popularly known as La Grade Bible de Tours]
Numbers 20:1-13; 21:4-9
The Waters of Meribah and the Bronze Serpent
And the people of Israel, the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there.
Now there was no water for the congregation; and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. And the people contended with Moses, and said, “Would that we had died when our brethren died before the LORD! Why have you brought the assembly of the LORD into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt, to bring us to this evil place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; and there is no water to drink.” Then Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the door of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. And the glory of the LORD appeared to them, and the LORD said to Moses, “Take the rod, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water; so you shall bring water out of the rock for them; so you shall give drink to the congregation and their cattle.” And Moses took the rod from before the LORD, as he commanded him.
And Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his rod twice; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their cattle. And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.” These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel contended with the LORD, and he showed himself holy among them.
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.
Commentary on Galatians 22 (Patrologia Latina 35: 2120-2121)
If our natural, sinful life had not been symbolically hanging on the Cross when the Lord died, the unregenerate instincts that were once ours would not have been crucified with him. But the apostle Paul assures us that our former selves were put to death with Christ on the Cross. The Lord died to free our bodies from the tyranny of sin. He intended us to be slaves of sin no longer.
Christ’s death and our sin were foreshadowed long ago in the desert, when Moses fastened a serpent to a wooden stake and held it on high. We must remember that it was through heeding the voice of a serpent that the human race had incurred the penalty of death, and so it was appropriate that a serpent, fastened to a wooden standard and raised aloft, should prefigure the death of Christ. In that symbol we have an image of the Lord’s death by hanging.
Now if Scripture were to say: Cursed be all that hang from a tree, we should scarcely feel disturbed. Yet that serpent hanging from a tree represents our Lord’s physical death. He himself confirmed this interpretation by saying: Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up above the earth. No one therefore will be likely to accuse Moses of intending to insult the Lord by this action, when he understands the power the Cross contains for the healing of the human race. Only because the serpent was a symbol of our Lord’s Cross did Moses command it to be erected, so that the people who were dying from snakebite might find instant cure through fixing their gaze upon it.
The serpent was fashioned from bronze as a symbol of faith in the enduring effects of the Lord’s Passion (A number of ancient artefacts, commonly called bronzes, are actually in existence today). The fact is that if people were to forget that Christ died for them and every record of the time of his Passion were to be destroyed, the human race would indeed be in the grip of death. But faith in Christ’s Cross abides forever; it is as enduring as bronze. Despite the constant cycle of birth and death the Cross continues to be held high above the earth for the healing of all who gaze upon it.
There need be no surprise, then, at the way in which Christ dealt with the curse on the human race. He overcame that curse by taking it upon his own person. He vanquished death by undergoing death himself, sin by identifying himself with sin, and the ancient serpent by means of another serpent.
Death, sin, and the serpent were all included in God’s curse, but the Cross has triumphed over each of them. And so there is profound truth in that word of Scripture: Cursed be all that hang on a tree.
Christ grants justification to those who believe in him, simply because they have faith and not because they observe the Law. This means that any fear of falling under the curse attached to the Cross has been taken away, while love endures. The blessing granted to Abraham for his exemplary faith is extended to the Gentiles, so that we may receive the promised Spirit through faith. In other words, the promised gift to believers is not a spirit of outward observance based on fear, but one of inward devotion inspired by love.