First Reading Commentary
This First Reading is an excellent example of how the events in the Old Testament are brought to fulfillment by our Lord Jesus Christ.
“The people complained against God and Moses.” Interestingly, they used to direct their complaints at Moses and Aaron; but at this point Aaron is deceased and now they boldly aim their complaints at God Himself and Moses.
“We are disgusted with this wretched food!” They are referring to the manna. The Septuagint version of Scripture translates as: “Our soul is indignant at this most empty bread!” And the Hebrew translates “this wretched food” as “most vile bread.” At Mass, if we were to receive our food before the Liturgy of the Eucharist and the Consecration, perhaps we would be left with a feeling of “emptiness” since all we would be doing is consuming ordinary bread; but after the Consecration, the substance of bread is removed and what still looks like bread truly is our Lord Jesus Christ; and when we receive Jesus, we receive grace and comfort.
“Make a saraph and mount it on a pole.” This “bronze serpent mounted on a pole” is a figure of Jesus on the Cross. These serpents were a curse sent to the Israelites for their sinfulness. Saint Paul tells us that Christ ransomed us by becoming a curse for us (cf. Galatians 3:13). In Scripture we also find these very prophetic words, “God’s curse rests on him who hangs on a tree” (Deuteronomy 21:23). Just as those who were bitten lived by looking at the mounted “bronze serpent,” so too has death been destroyed and life restored to us eternally by the Sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross.
Second Reading Commentary
This Reading gives us a clear example of God’s humility. “Christ Jesus, though He was in the form of God” to which the ancient Fathers of the Church expound as truly, properly, and essentially God from eternity. “He emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave.” The Greek text translates as: “He made Himself void.” God, because of His love for humankind, became like us; and not only like us, but a slave. This is humility and love beyond comprehension. Almighty God becomes a slave!
He was “found human in appearance” and became “obedient to death, even death on a Cross.” Saint John Chrysostom teaches that Jesus has the appearance of a sinful man, if we consider Him persecuted and nailed to an infamous Cross.
“At the Name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” If we are to show respect and love for the Name of Jesus and all that He has accomplished out of love for us, then most certainly we should respect the Cross that made these events possible. Saint Andrew of Crete speaks of the Cross with these words: “How great the Cross! What blessings it holds! He who possesses it possesses a treasure. For in it and through it and for it all the riches of our salvation were stored away and restored to us. How great the Cross, through which we have received a multitude of blessings, because, against all reckoning, the miracles and sufferings of Christ have been victorious!” Saint Rose of Lima adds, “Apart from the Cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven.”
How true! As the Mystical Body of Christ, if we are to truly follow in His Footsteps, we must grasp that both are necessary for all of us: there cannot be an Easter Sunday without Good Friday.
Jesus said to Nicodemus: “No one has gone up to heaven except the One Who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man.” Jesus descended from heaven to become Man and He alone is our only Way into heaven.
“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.” In this verse Jesus is proclaiming that He is the fulfillment of this weekend’s First Reading from the Book of Numbers. This is one of the treasures of liturgy; we seek to find an appropriate application to our life from what can often seem like an arcane Old Testament Reading, and Jesus reveals those answers to us in the Gospel.
“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.” This is one of the most familiar verses in Scripture. Often at sporting events at least one person will hold up a sign which reads “John 3:16.” This act of love from God and the Sacrifice of His Son are eternal and can never be withdrawn. How soothing that is in a life of so few assurances.
Our Holy Father of happy memory, Saint John Paul II, expounds on this verse with these words: “The Father's infinite love for the world is revealed in Christ's Sacrifice. The capacity to love infinitely, to give oneself without reserve or measure, belongs to God. By virtue of His being Love, even before His free creation of the world He is Father in the divine life itself: a loving Father Who generates the beloved Son and gives rise with Him to the Holy Spirit, the Person-Love, the reciprocal bond of communion.”
Monsignor Ronald Knox (1888-1957), an English convert to Roman Catholicism, while living out his vocation had written a translation of the bible which at one time was the only acceptable liturgical translation in the United Kingdom. He suggests that this well-known verse and the one that follows may not have been spoken by Jesus to Nicodemus; but probably was added by Saint John the Evangelist, the author of this Gospel.
“For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” To help make this final verse from this Gospel more comprehensible, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “Christ is Lord of eternal life. Full right to pass definitive judgment on the works and hearts of men belongs to Him as Redeemer of the world. He acquired this right by His Cross. The Father has given all judgment to the Son. Yet the Son did not come to judge, but to save and to give the life He has in Himself. By rejecting grace in this life, one already judges oneself, receives according to one's works, and can even condemn oneself for all eternity by rejecting the Spirit of love” (CCC 679).
With Jesus having full authority to judge humanity, but instead choosing to “save and to give the life He has in Himself,” in contemplation has the power to take us beyond the boundaries of mere human comprehension of love, and offers us a glimpse at love at a celestial height. It is Jesus saying: “All that I Am, I offer to you.” It is difficult for us human creatures to wrap our heads around this; but when embracing Jesus, entering into His life, entering into the life of the Church, the possibilities are endless. How could anyone reject that offering of grace!