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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP: The Lord’s chosen Arises

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Moses and the Bronze Serpent depicted in a stained glass window from St Patrick’s seminary chapel in New York. Photo: Lawrence OP/ Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

“The Son of Man must be lifted up, like the serpent Moses lifted up in the desert” (Jn 3:14). It’s an extraordinary thing for Jesus to compare Himself with a snake, for in the ancient world serpent-gods were amongst the worst. Apep, the Egyptian god of chaos, took the form of a serpent.

Medusa, the Gorgon sister of Greek mythology who turned all who looked at her to stone, had wriggling snakes for hair. The Minoans, Egyptians and Norsemen had their snake gods and they were rarely good news. In some Asian religions the Nāgas, half-human half-serpent beings, were feared inhabitants of the netherworld. And in the Bible, snakes represent danger and deception, trickery and temptation, demons and death.

The Book of Genesis describes the serpent as “more crafty than any other animal”; Satan assumes that form to tempt our first parents away from trusting in God and toward trusting only in themselves (Gen ch. 3). It doesn’t end well, for them or for us, as this first or ‘original’ sin estranged human beings from God, creation, each other and self, and set the pattern for sin ever since. But God also announced that He would put an enmity between the seed of the serpent and the descendants of Eve (Gen 3:15): the spiritual struggle would long continue.

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Moses was no snake-lover: in a contest of miracles before Pharoah, his staff turned into a viper and Moses recoiled from it, though God told him to take it by the tail (Ex 4:1-5; 7:15). Subsequently his assistant Aaron’s staff also became a snake and ate up the asps of Pharaoh’s sorcerers (Ex 7:9-13).

They met snakes again after escaping. When the people murmured against God and Moses, deploring their desert fare and pining for the ‘fleshpots” of Egypt, God allowed poisonous snakes to invade the camp and bite many (Dt 8:15; Num 21:4-9).

The people promptly repented, and God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and set it on a pole; those who gazed upon it were protected or cured from the snake bites. The נְחֻשְׁתָּן Nehushtan seems to be a premonition of the rod, carried by Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine; to this day it is a symbol of the medical arts.

But it’s a strange incident, given Israel’s allergy to idols, and King Hezekiah eventually ordered the brazen serpent’s destruction (2Kgs 18:4). The Wisdom literature taught us to “flee from sin as from a deadly snake” (Sir 21:2) and Jesus and John called their enemies “a brood of vipers” (Mt 3:7; 12:34; 23:33).

We Australians know about venomous snakes: we boast more species of them than anywhere else on earth! Nine out of the world’s ten most deadly can be found on our shores and, if that weren’t enough to make your skin crawl, ours is the only country where venomous snakes outnumber non-venomous ones. Ophidiophobia may officially be an irrational fear of snakes, but down under it seems perfectly rational…

So what are we to make of Christ’s prophecy today that He would be lifted up like Moses’ serpent? In the Scriptures and the Liturgy we often compare Jesus with a lamb: meek, innocent, sacrificial. A lamb, fair enough, but a snake? Well, in today’s Gospel (Jn 3:14-21) Christ reminds Nicodemus of Israel’s history, when God at Moses’ hand turned snakes that were the source of misery into a means of healing.

Israel knew from experience that salvation can come from the most unexpected quarters. In our first reading from Chronicles (2Chr 36:14-23), the people’s repeated infidelities led to their demise at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. All seemed hopeless: the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, the people routed, many carried off to captivity.

Yet after a long sabbatical by the rivers of Babylon, they were saved, and by someone out of leftfield, the Persian monarch Cyrus whom Isaiah called Messiah, “the Lord’s Anointed” (Isa 41:5). God’s ways are not our ways, His thoughts not our thoughts, as the same prophet said (Isa 55:8-9), and so salvation can come when and where least expected.

Christ’s insistence that the Son of Man must be “lifted up” like a snake on a pole is, of course, a reference to His being lifted up on the cross. On the face of it, it’s the strangest of redemptive acts. Crucifixion was a particularly gruesome form of execution, designed not only to end one’s life but to maximise the suffering and humiliation before death, and so terrify the onlookers. So brutal was it, the Romans reserved it for the worst of the worst, and exempted their own citizens.

Yet it is there, in the darkest of places, marked by suffering, desolation and death, that we encounter the fullness of God’s love. “For God so loved the world He gave His only Son.” (Jn 3:16) The devil is real and so is the spiritual struggle. But what would outsmart the wiliest of creatures, overpower the most powerful, undo Satan’s temptation and lure us back to trusting in God, would be the seed of Mary the new Eve, Jesus the ancient enemy of the Serpent.

In the contest of miracle-workers, amidst the brood of contemporary vipers, in the cry for healing from their bites, we need One “as innocent as a lamb” but also “as wise as a serpent” (Mt 10:16). We need One whose Lenten misery can transform ours to Laetare joy.
From the most unexpected quarter, the Lord’s Anointed arises, but this time as a suffering servant-king.

From an ‘outsider’, condemned to death, salvation comes. And to use Paul’s language today, “we are raised up with Him” (Eph 2:4-10), raised up with Him onto the cross of Good Friday, raised up with Him out of the limbo of sin and death, raised up with Him out of the tomb at Easter, raised up with Him at the Ascension into heaven.

Looking upon Him on His cross is no idolatry of a brazen serpent-god or a venomous Aussie snake but worship of the one true God, the One from whom all healing comes, “infinitely rich in grace”. “He was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isa 53:5)

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