It may seem a little surprising on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross to hear the story of the Israelites being bitten by snakes in response to their continued complaining in the desert. Long journeys and hunger can have all of us impatient and even whining, right? But if we look at precisely what the Israelites were complaining about and the remedy offered them, the meaning becomes clearer.

They complained about “this wretched food,” which was the manna, the miraculous food that God had sent to sustain them in the desert. God sent a gift and they threw it back at Him and called it wretched. In punishment, seraph serpents (“burning snakes”) appeared and bit them and many of them were dying. The serpents were killing the ungrateful Israelites. To remedy this, God directed Moses to make an image of the very thing that is killing them, and those who looked up at it lived.

In the Gospel, Jesus compares his own crucifixion to the image of the serpent in the desert: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Why? “So that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

What is the connection between the two? Well, when we choose sin and reject the Food God gives, it leads to spiritual death. Sin is killing us, like the serpents were killing the Israelites (like the original serpent, Satan). To remedy this, God sent His Son, who was “made to be sin” (2 Cor 5:21) and lifted up on the Cross, and those who look up to him will live. Jesus “becomes” the thing that is killing us, taking on all sin, and is then lifted up for all to look upon.

In both instances, repentance and faith are required. The Israelites weren’t given a remedy until they had repented and asked Moses to intercede for them; and they would not have looked up at the bronze serpent unless they believed it would help them. In the same way, we do not look up at Christ as the crucified Savior unless we have repented of our sin and believe he will save us.

Are we so different from the wandering Israelites? Are we properly grateful for the miraculous spiritual Food that the Lord provides for us every day? Jesus tells us that HE is the true Bread come down from Heaven, and we literally consume Him, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Eucharist. Jesus tells us that if we do not eat this Bread, we have no life in us! We must eat to live. So, we must grow in gratitude for this great Gift, without which we would die.

Let us look with trust upon the One who gives Himself for us – both as Food and as Savior – and “lift high the Cross” by being unashamed to wear it, kneel before it, and claim it as the source of our salvation.

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Saint Jerome

Known mostly for his translation of the Scriptures into Latin, Saint Jerome was also an inspiring writer of letters and commentaries. He was said to have had a bad temper, yet he was a man of prayer and penance. A combination of conflicting qualities, Saint Jerome stands out as one of the four great Doctors of the Latin Church.