One of those occasions when Jan Dismas Zelenka (remember him?) was permitted to shine was Good Friday of 1730.
After a liturgy recounting the Passion of Christ according to St. John, the court was treated to Il Serpento di Bronzo, a cantata based on Chapter 21 of Numbers.
Wandering in the desert, the people of Israel long for the “green slopes of Egypt.” Forgetting the slavery from which they have been liberated, they begin to wish that baby Moses had fallen from his basket and drowned in the Nile.
The people’s real gripe, of course, is with the God whose promises—and threats—Moses has conveyed to them over the years. Conveniently, they forget the many blessings also showered upon them by the intercession of that baby once plucked from the river.
In this booming aria, God (making a rare appearance in Italian oratorio) ponders what to do with his backsliding followers. “I could send storms and thunders to crush those godless heathen,” he muses, or fix them with “fires” and “abysses.”
On second thought, he decides, it is more befitting divine wisdom to punish the fainthearted ingrates in a more subtle fashion. “A mere bite should do to avenge the wrong” they have committed.
This “mere bite” turns out to be more than enough to bring God’s people to their knees, when they find their camp filled with poisonous snakes.
When we find ourselves grumbling about trifles, it may be well to recall that without the benevolent protection of God, our weak frames are subject to destruction from the seemingly slightest causes.
Happily, this tale ends in redemption. Recognizing their folly, the people beg Moses to implore God’s mercy. In response to their repentance and Moses’s faith, God replies that he “shall never deny mercy to anyone who repents and hopes.”
Following God’s instructions, Moses casts a bronze serpent, which he holds aloft on a long rod. As the people gaze at this mysterious sign, health and life return.
His mind “lit up by celestial flame,” Moses glimpses something more in this serpent: he “can see God nailed to the beam by a brutal rabble for the salvation of the human race, and only those who look toward him can hope to find salvation and live forever.”
This Lent, let us turn from our personal preoccupations, whether they be petty grievances or serious sufferings, and look toward the cross, from which our Savior looks back at us.
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