Readings: 2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21
You must have noticed the strange imagery: Jesus comparing himself to a serpent raised up on a standard. Do you remember the story he references from the Book of Numbers?
While wandering in the desert, the Israelites were bitten by seraph serpents–“flying” or even “fiery” serpents, according to some translations–and the people died. Moses intercedes and God commands him to fashion a bronze serpent and raise it on a pole. Whoever was bitten but looked at the bronze serpent is healed.
Many people are repulsed or even frightened by serpents and snakes. Or fascinated. Some snakes entrance and hypnotize their prey.
Snakes live below surfaces, in dark places; yet they come out into the light of day or even scale trees. They shed their old skin and seem to regenerate. Many ancient peoples considered them sacred, linking the underworld of the dead with the land of the living. They were considered wise and subtle creatures with the power of healing. The incident recorded in the Book of Numbers would make perfect sense to these peoples.
And if they are frightening, let’s face it: we love the thrill of a good fright. It pulls us out of ourselves.
Consider the Biblical image in detail: the bronze serpent has to be fastened–perhaps nailed–to a pole to be raised up. In other words, the serpent that wounds is itself pierced or wounded.
The serpent who wounds and heals, and is wounded, is not unlike encountering Jesus. Jesus is dangerous–our response to him could be our salvation; our rejection, our damnation. On a whole other level, to be fascinated and entranced by Jesus and his Gospel can be as wounding as falling in love. But turning away from him is a dead end, not a recovery from this often upsetting fascination. After all, he would change my entire life.
And we must face the fright that encountering him generates: he makes us notice the injustice and sin, inadequacies and limits around us and within us.
The ancient Christian Prayer of the Heart teaches that in the frightening darkness of my deepest secrets, there I can discover God’s mercy at work, as forgiveness for my confession of guilt. There I would see the image of God’s incarnate Son. Let not fear of the serpent keep us away from those depths!