Looking for the Serpent

Today’s Gospel has Jesus make a reference that his hearers would have understood, but which we may not.  When he says, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,” he’s referring to the story in the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Numbers when, as the Israelites are fleeing Egypt, they turn against God because of the difficulties they encounter in their journey [Num 23:4ff].  In punishment, according to the story, God sends serpents to bite the people; and that stops only when they come to their senses. Then God tells Moses to make an image of a serpent and mount it on a pole. He does so and, when the people look at the serpent, they recover from the poisonous bites.  What? There’s magical healing that comes from looking at snake statues?

Here’s how to understand this.  There’s a Chinese proverb that says, “No disease, short life; one disease, long life.”  Knowing what we’re up against concentrates our attention and energy and can lead to good results; without a focus, we’re likely to be distracted and to dissipate our energies.  The serpent-statue is Moses’s way of focusing the people’s attention on what they need to learn about themselves.

And so back to Jesus: He continues, after the reference to the serpent, with “So must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.”  The cross of Christ will be like the serpent-statue: an invitation to pay attention.

Some years ago a religious-studies professor wrote a book called Lost Christianity.  In it he puts into the mouth of a (semi-fictionalized) hermit a phrase I’ve found haunting since I first read it: You will not find Christ by going to “Christ,” but only through seeing, clearly and with precision, how you crucify Him. This is why we look to the cross of Christ: so that we see how we, by our choices, crucify Him.  Note: I do not mean here just the fact that “we crucify him” by our sins; that’s the commonplace – true, but not helpful – awareness that “Jesus died for our sins.”  The point of meditation on the cross is to discover how we crucify Him.

This can begin with simple awareness of actions that harm ourselves, or others, or our world.  Most Christians can do some of that. We know that stealing is wrong, because it hurts others; we know that drug-abuse is wrong, because it hurts us; we may even know that littering is wrong, because it hurts society.  But are we careful about what we allow to matter as stealing? Is fudging our taxes wrong? How about taking home a few things from the office? Wasting time while we’re supposedly working? And for abusing ourselves: What about our diet of mindless trivia from the media?  Our indulgence of resentment over old hurts? How we “crucify Christ” is a matter of fine-grained detail; we can’t allow ourselves to skate on pious generalizations.

Meditation on Christ’s cross can also raise our awareness of complicity in the larger evils of our time.  We may rightly deplore the increasing crudeness of our society. But are we careful with our language, not only with profanity but with how we speak about people with whom we disagree?  We decry the increasing violence of our world; do we tolerate violent language toward others in our household? Do we watch violent media, or play violent video-games?

The “serpent on a pole” was Moses’ way of helping the people to see with precision the sort of idolatry they had fallen into.  We need such images to help us, and Christ crucified has always been the primary one for Christians. The lesson of this Sunday’s scriptures is echoed in the words of that hermit: You will not find Christ by going to “Christ,” but only through seeing, clearly and with precision, how you crucify Him. Until next week, prayer; fasting; and almsgiving.  Peace.

Copyright © Our Lady of Grace Roman Catholic Church