From time to time I compose shorter or longer devotions; this, one of the longer, is an extended reflection upon several overlapping themes... I hope it may be of interest.
The Brazen Serpent a Type of Christ – Twelve Readings and Responsories
First Reading, from the Law
From the serpent came death to mankind. But the seed of the woman shall trample Satan down – this is the Protoevangelium, the first presage of the Good News of Christ.
A reading from the book of Genesis. (3:1-15)
In those days:
1 Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.
8 And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 And he said, “I heard the sound of thee in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” 11 He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”
12 The man said, “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” 13 Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent beguiled me, and I ate.” 14 The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all cattle, and above all wild animals; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. 15 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
First Responsory (Isaiah 27:1; 14:29b; 2 Corinthians 11:3,14)
R/. In that day the LORD with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea. * For from the serpent’s root will come forth an adder, and its fruit will be a flying serpent.
V/. I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. * For from the serpent’s root will come forth an adder, and its fruit will be a flying serpent.
Second Reading, from the Law
God transforms Aaron’s rod into a serpent, and it consumes the serpents conjured up by the magicians of Egypt. The destruction of the serpents of evil by this marvellous serpent foretells Israel’s deliverance from Pharaoh, and man’s liberation from sin.
A reading from the book of Exodus. (4:1-5; 7:8-13)
In those days:
4:1 Moses answered, “But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘The LORD did not appear to you.’” 2 The LORD said to him, “What is that in your hand?” He said, “A rod.” 3 And he said, “Cast it on the ground.” So he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from it. 4 But the LORD said to Moses, “Put out your hand, and take it by the tail” – so he put out his hand and caught it, and it became a rod in his hand – 5 “that they may believe that the LORD, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.”
7:8 And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, 9 “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Prove yourselves by working a miracle,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your rod and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it may become a serpent.’” 10 So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did as the LORD commanded; Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent. 11 Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers; and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did the same by their secret arts. 12 For every man cast down his rod, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods. 13 Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them; as the LORD had said.
Second Responsory (Amos 5:18-19,27b; Jeremiah 8:17; Amos 9:3)
R/. Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! Why would you have the day of the LORD? It is darkness, and not light; as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him; or went into the house and leaned with his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. “For behold, I am sending among you serpents, adders which cannot be charmed, and they shall bite you,” * says the LORD, whose name is the God of hosts.
V/. “Though they hide themselves on the top of Carmel, from there I will search out and take them; and though they hide from my sight at the bottom of the sea, there I will command the serpent, and it shall bite them,” * says the LORD, whose name is the God of hosts.
Third Reading, from the Law
Fiery serpents, or ‘seraph serpents’, bite the sinful. The image of such a serpent, however, avails for deliverance from their poison. This is a type of the redemption won for us by Christ Crucified from the slavery of sin.
A reading from the book of Numbers. (21:4-9)
In those days:
4 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. 5 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.”
6 Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 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. 8 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.” 9 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.
Third Responsory (Cf. Judith 8:24-25 (Vulg.); 1 Corinthians 10:9-12)
R/. They that did not receive the trials with the fear of the Lord, but uttered their impatience and the reproach of their murmuring against the Lord, were destroyed by the destroyer, and perished by serpents. * Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.
V/. We must not put the Lord to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents; nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.
* Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.
Fourth Reading, from the Law
The law of the Lord must be observed, lest Israel let God’s salvation go for nothing. Likewise, Christians ought not forget their liberation by Christ from the fiery serpents of the enemy.
A reading from the book of Deuteronomy. (8:11-16)
In those days, Moses said to the people:
11 “Take heed lest you forget the LORD your God, by not keeping his commandments and his ordinances and his statutes, which I command you this day: 12 lest, when you have eaten and are full, and have built goodly houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks multiply, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, 15 who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, 16 who fed you in the wilderness with manna which your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end.”
Fourth Responsory (Psalm 90(91) 9-10, 13; Isaiah 30:6a)
R/. Because you have made the LORD your refuge, the Most High your habitation, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent. * You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
V/. Through a land of trouble and anguish, from where come the lioness and the lion, the viper and the flying serpent, * You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
Fifth, Historical Reading
The bronze serpent made by Moses was given idolatrous worship by the corrupt descendents of Israel, and so it was best destroyed. This demonstrates the danger of perversion of worship, of a turn to Satan from God.
A reading from the second book of Kings. (18:1-4)
In those days:
1 In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah, king of Israel, Hezekiah the son of Ahaz, king of Judah, began to reign. 2 He was twenty-five years old when he began to reign, and he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Abi the daughter of Zechariah. 3 And he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, according to all that David his father had done. 4 He removed the high places, and broke the pillars, and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had burned incense to it; it was called Nehushtan.
Fifth Responsory (Revelation 12:7-9a; 20:1-3a)
R/. Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. * And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.
V/. Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, that he should deceive the nations no more. * And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.
Sixth, Prophetic Reading
The seraphim, or ‘fiery ones’, may have been like the ‘fiery serpents’ and ‘flying serpents’ recorded elsewhere in Holy Writ. Here they are agents of good, bringing not poison but purification. They typify Christ and the Holy Spirit sent from God.
A reading from the prophet Isaiah. (6:1-7)
In those days:
1 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” 4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” 6 Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.”
Sixth Responsory (Revelation 4:2-3,6b,8)
R/. At once I was in the Spirit, and lo, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne! And he who sat there appeared like jasper and carnelian, and round the throne was a rainbow that looked like an emerald. * “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”
V/. And round the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures; and the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all round and within, and day and night they never cease to sing, * “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”
Seventh, Sapiential Reading
God showed mercy when he sent both a salutary punishment and a sure cure to his wayward people. They were taught obedience by suffering, and saved by recourse to God through the instrumentality of the brazen serpent, foretelling Christ as Mediator.
A reading from the book of Wisdom. (16:5-8,10-14)
5 For when the terrible rage of wild beasts came upon thy people
and they were being destroyed by the bites of writhing serpents,
thy wrath did not continue to the end;
6 they were troubled for a little while as a warning,
and received a token of deliverance to remind them of thy law’s command.
7 For he who turned toward it was saved,
not by what he saw, but by thee, the Saviour of all.
8 And by this also thou didst convince our enemies
that it is thou who deliverest from every evil.
10 Thy sons were not conquered even by the teeth of venomous serpents,
for thy mercy came to their help and healed them.
11 To remind them of thy oracles they were bitten,
and then were quickly delivered,
lest they should fall into deep forgetfulness
and become unresponsive to thy kindness.
12 For neither herb nor poultice cured them,
but it was thy word, O Lord, which heals all men.
13 For thou hast power over life and death;
thou dost lead men down to the gates of Hades and back again.
Seventh Responsory (Sirach 12:13-14; Ecclesiastes 10:11)
R/. Who will pity a snake charmer bitten by a serpent, or any who go near wild beasts? * If the serpent bites before it is charmed, there is no advantage in a charmer.
V/. So no one will pity a man who associates with a sinner and becomes involved in his sins. * If the serpent bites before it is charmed, there is no advantage in a charmer.
Eighth Reading, from the Acts of the Apostles
Christ’s promise to his disciples, that they should be unharmed if bitten by serpents, and be able to cure the sick by the laying on of hands, is fulfilled in the person of St Paul.
A reading from the Acts of the Apostles. (Acts 28:1-9)
In those days:
1 After we had escaped, we then learned that the island was called Malta. 2 And the natives showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold. 3 Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, when a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. 4 When the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.” 5 He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. 6 They waited, expecting him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead; but when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.
7 Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the chief man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days.
8 It happened that the father of Publius lay sick with fever and dysentery; and Paul visited him and prayed, and putting his hands on him healed him. 9 And when this had taken place, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured.
Eighth Responsory (Romans 16:19-20a; Matthew 10:16,7-8a)
R/. Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. For while your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, I would have you wise as to what is good and guileless as to what is evil; * then the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.
V/. And preach as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. * Then the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.
Ninth, Gospel Reading
Our Lord identifies himself with the lifegiving bronze serpent once set up in the desert to cure those bitten by serpents. He promises to give everlasting life to all those who acknowledge him as the One who Is, who believe him to be God.
A reading from the holy gospel according to John. (12:30a, 31-34; 8:28a; 3:14-16)
At that time:
12:30a Jesus answered, 31 “Now is the judgement of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; 32 and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” 33 He said this to show by what death he was to die. 34 The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Christ remains for ever. How can you say that the Son of man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of man?”
8:28a So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am he.”
3:14 “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Ninth Responsory (Mark 16:15b-18; Luke 10:19)
R/. “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. * Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you.
V/. “And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover. * Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you.”
Tenth, Ecclesiastical Reading
To St Francis, afire with God’s love, was granted a vision of Christ as a Seraph upon a Cross – fulfilling the prophetic image of the fiery serpent as agent of salvation. At this transfixing vision, he is Christified, recreated in the very likeness of Christ Crucified.
A reading from the Minor Life of St Francis, by St Bonaventure. (Legenda minor, 6, 1)
St Francis was a faithful and devoted servant of Christ and [in 1224] two years before he died he observed a forty-day fast in honour of St Michael the Archangel on a mountain called La Verna, where he lived in complete solitude. There he experienced an extraordinary infusion of divine contemplation; he was all on fire with heavenly desires and he realized that the gifts of divine grace were being poured out over him in greater abundance than ever. The fervour of his seraphic longing raised him up to God and, in its compassionate tenderness, made him like Christ who chose to hang upon the Cross in the excess of his love. Then one morning about the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, as he was praying on the mountainside, Francis saw a Seraph with six fiery wings coming down from the highest point in heaven. The vision descended swiftly and came to rest in mid-air quite near him; then he saw that the Seraph was nailed to a cross although he had wings. His hands and feet were stretched out and nailed to the Cross, while the wings were arranged about him wonderfully; two of them were raised above his head and two were stretched out in flight, while the remaining two were joined to his body and covered it.
Tenth Responsory (Attr. St Francis)
R/. I beseech you, O Lord, may the burning and mellifluous power of your love absorb my mind, that I may die to the world for the love of your love, * you who deigned to die on the cross for love of my love.
V/. You have marked, O Lord, your servant Francis with the marks of our redemption, * you who deigned to die on the cross for love of my love.
Eleventh, Ecclesiastical Reading
A reading from the Minor Life of St Francis, by St Bonaventure. (Legenda minor, 6, 2)
Francis was dumbfounded at the sight and his heart was flooded with a mixture of joy and sorrow. He was overjoyed to see how graciously Christ regarded him, as he appeared to him so intimately in this miraculous vision. But the sight of the cruel way he was nailed to the Cross pierced his soul with a sword of compassionate sorrow. Then Christ who appeared to him visibly, granted him spiritual enlightenment and he realized that, although the agony of the passion was not in keeping with the state of a seraphic spirit which is immortal, his vision had a deep meaning for him. It was set before his eyes that, as Christ’s lover, he might know that he was to resemble Christ crucified perfectly, not by physical martyrdom, but by the fervour of his spirit. As the vision disappeared, after they had conversed mysteriously in complete intimacy, it left his heart ablaze with seraphic eagerness and marked his body with the visible likeness of the Crucified. It was as if the fire of love had first penetrated his whole being, so that the likeness of Christ might be impressed upon it like a seal.
Eleventh Responsory (Galatians 6:14,17; 1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1)
R/. But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. * I urge you, then, be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.
V/. Pray for us, Seraphic Father Francis. * I urge you, then, be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.
Twelfth, Ecclesiastical Reading
A reading from the Minor Life of St Francis, by St Bonaventure. (Legenda minor, 6, 3)
There and then the marks of nails began to appear in his hands and feet, the heads of which were in the palms of his hands and on the instep of each foot, while the points protruded on the opposite side. The heads appeared black and round in his hands and feet, but the points were long and bent back; they rose above the surrounding flesh and jutted out above it. The curved portion of the nails on the soles of his feet was so big and stood out so far that he could not put his foot firmly on the ground; a man could put his finger through the loop without difficulty, as I have been told by people who saw the stigmata with their own eyes. His right side was marked with a livid scar which often bled, and it looked as if it had been pierced with a lance. His habit and trousers used to be soaked with blood, so that the friars who washed them knew at once that Christ’s servant bore the likeness of the Crucified in his side, just as he bore it in his hands and feet.
Twelfth Responsory (Cf. St Bonaventure, Legenda minor, 6, 4)
R/. When the forty days which he intended spending in solitude on the mountain were over and the feast of St Michael the Archangel had come, St Francis came down from the mountain. * True love of Christ had now transformed his lover into his image.
V/. With him he bore a representation of Christ crucified which was not the work of an artist in wood or stone; it had been inscribed on the members of his body by the hand of the living God. * True love of Christ had now transformed his lover into his image.
Let us pray.
O God, to whom all creatures are obedient, and who made all things in wisdom by thy word, thine ineffable mercy we beseech, whom thou hast deigned to redeem by the wood of the holy cross, by the holy blood of thy Son, that thou, who art the tree of life and the restorer of paradise, may extinguish the dire poison of the serpent and, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, ever pour out the waters of salvation in all who believe in thee. Through Christ our Lord. R/. Amen.