The Cross and the Copper Serpent

“The Cross and the Copper Serpent”
A reflection on Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:13-17
Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
©️2022 by Gloria M. Chang

First Reading

From Mount Hor they set out by way of the Red Sea, to bypass the land of Edom, but the people’s patience was worn out by the journey; so the people complained against God and Moses, “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness, where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this wretched food!”

So the Lord sent among the people seraph serpents, which bit the people so that many of the Israelites died. Then the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned in complaining against the Lord and you. Pray to the Lord to take the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people, and the Lord said to Moses: Make a seraph and mount it on a pole, and everyone who has been bitten will look at it and recover. Accordingly Moses made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole, and whenever the serpent bit someone, the person looked at the bronze serpent and recovered.

Numbers 21:4-9

Gospel

Jesus said to Nicodemus: “No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

John 3:13-17

In the Likeness of Sinful Flesh

The Gospel of John presents the bronze serpent raised by Moses as a type of Christ. Serpents killed the Israelites in the desert with their venom, but the likeness of a serpent healed them. Typologically, the sin of Adam brought death into the world, but the death of the sinless Christ gained eternal life. God sent his own Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh” to save the world: 

For what the law, weakened by the flesh, was powerless to do, this God has done: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for the sake of sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous decree of the law might be fulfilled in us, who live not according to the flesh but according to the spirit. 

Romans 8:3-4

Typology of Christ and the Copper Serpent

The sinless Christ swallowed death on the Cross—the “wages of sin”—so that all who believe in him might live (1 Corinthians 15:54; Romans 6:23). Christ, like the brazen serpent on a pole, hangs like a criminal for sin, but radiates divine mercy and love to all sinners. The following poem reflects on the Johannine typology of Christ and the Copper Serpent.

Augustus John, Moses and the Brazen Serpent (1898)

Famished and weary in the wilderness,
The Israelites murmured with bitterness.
“Why have you brought us from Egypt to die?
We have no food or water!” came the cry.

So the Lord sent seraph serpents to bite
The ingrates until they became contrite.
“Moses,” they implored, “impetrate the Lord
To expel from us this serpentine horde.”

Thus Moses mounted a snake on a pole:
A bronze seraph to make the people whole.
Whenever the asps the Israelites smote,
The harmless asp became their antidote.

When we hear, therefore, the Gospel of John
Compare Christ with a copper snake bygone,
Let’s hail the glory of the Son of Man
Who was exalted to fulfill God’s plan.

Just as Moses lifted up the serpent,
God lifted up the Suffering Servant.
Sinless, Christ died on the cross to quash sin,
Transforming poison into medicine.

Russian icon of the Crucifixion by Dionysius, ca. 1500, Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow

Christ ransomed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us,
for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree.”

Galatians 3:13

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