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Abside of the Basilica of San Clemente, Rome


In John's gospel another enigmatic episode that took place during Israel's stay in the desert. Now tired of the Lord's heavenly food, the people return to regret Egypt once again: "The people said against God and against Moses:" Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in this desert? For there is neither bread nor water here and we are nauseated with this light food." Then the Lord sent among the poisonous snakes among the people who biting people and a large number of Israelites died. Then the people came to Moses and said, " We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord that these snakes away from us." Moses prayed for the people. The Lord said to Moses, " Make yourself a snake and put it over an auction; whoever, after being bitten will watch it will remain alive." Moses then made a copper snake and placed it over the auction; when a snake had bitten Someone, if these looked at the copper snake, they'd stay alive."

Jesus compares this remedy to his mission: " As Moses raised the snake in the desert, so the Son of man should be raised, because whoever believes in him has eternal life."

As the copper snake healed the venom of poisonous snakes, so the sacrifice of the Son of God remedied the sin of the first men, seduced by the poisonous words of the ancient snake. During history, the combination of the Redeemer and the snake has caused many doubts, being a markably negative symbol, particularly in the biblical and Christian context. It is interesting, however, to note that analogy ideally places the desert as a symbolic context of Christ's passion.

The desert is indeed also a symbol of death, and in the prophecies of the Old Testament it is the seal of the devastation that the Lord's wrath upon the cities of men: " An impetuous wind will unleashes against them, it will scatter them like a hurricane. iniquity will make all the earth deserted and wickedness will overthrow the thrones of the mighty."

Jesus Christ is crucified in Jerusalem. The holy city is the symbol of God's abode with the elected people, and by extension of God's presence in creation. The iniquity of men however turns the Lord's vineyard into a desert: " I have abandoned my house, I have disowned my inheritance; I have delivered what I hold dear to the hands of his enemies. My legacy became to me like a lion in the forest; it roar against me, so I began to hate it. Is my inheritance like a scrapped bird to me? The birds of prey attack her from all over. Come, gather, you all wild beasts, come and devour. Many shepherds have devastated my vineyard, stepped on my field. They have made my favorite field a desert, they reduced it a deserted land, in a deplorable state; it is desolate before me. The whole country is devastated, and no one cares about it.""

The core of the Christian message is resurrection. If death is a desert, new life is a flower that blooms in the arid lands. So Isaiah explains the deep meaning of the " way of the Lord " in the desert: " Behold, I do something new: just now it sprouts, don't you notice? I'll open a road in the desert, I'll put rivers in the steppe."

The incarnation moves the abode of God from the Temple to the human heart: the new Jerusalem is the human soul into which the divine spirit descended: " But finally in us a spirit will be infused from above; then the desert will become a garden."

(Francesco Boer, Symbology of the Gospel, unpublished book - Image: Abside of the Basilica of San Clemente, Rome)


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