Lifted Like the Serpent

Sunday of the Fourth week in Lent: 2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23, Ephesians 2:4-10, John 3:14-21.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus has a memorable meeting with Nicodemus, a powerful Jewish leader on the Sanhedrin, a faithful Jew, and eventually a full disciple of Jesus who comes with myrrh and aloes along with Joseph of Arimathea to retrieve His body from the Cross. Jesus presents Himself to Nicodemus as a modern, living version of Moses’s serpent on the staff that saved the Jews bitten by poisonous serpents in the desert. While foreign to us if we are not versed in scriptures, this comparison would undoubtedly have been powerful and shocking for Nicodemus. In fact, Jesus’s words finally explain the significance of God instructing Moses to make a bronze serpent and mount it on a pole. As we dig into today’s gospel reading, we are struck with the entire span of salvation history from the Garden of Eden to Christ’s Paschal Sacrifice on the Cross. We also can see Nicodemus as a true Christian, converted to Christ, moving from the darkness to the light.

Nicodemus and Jesus on a Rooftop (1899), Henry Ossawa Tanner | Wikimedia Commons. On the left is a study that Tanner did for the finished painting on the right. I appreciate the nimbus on Christ in the study, allowing for Him being the “Light of the World” despite the meeting occurring at night.

St. John tells us that Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. In just this simple statement, we can glean many things. Some scholars believe that this leader of the Jews comes by night because it would be unseemly for a member of the Sanhedrin to join the crowds and rabble who followed this traveling preacher by day. Whether he was too busy with his duties, too proud to be seen going to learn from an unlearned miracle-worker, or too bashful to present himself openly, we encounter this powerful man coming to Jesus under cover of night. As historians and scholars have envisioned this meeting, there has emerged a compelling argument that they met on a rooftop. First of all, this was (and is) common practice for men to retire to the rooftops after their evening meal on the hot Middle Eastern nights to enjoy the breeze in the air. Second, Jesus makes some memorable statements about the air and the spirit, likely choosing the moment when the phenomenon of the breeze could help Him make this point: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn 3:8). Jesus speaks of a spiritual logic unknown to those merely born of the flesh, encouraging Nicodemus to break out of his disbelief and earth-bound assumptions about what is possible. So we see Nicodemus coming to Christ at night to know more from this man sent by God and God in return engaging him in the deepest truths. Is this not the exact journey we all make to Christ? Do we all not suffer from a certain bashfulness to approach Him openly in a culture that views our faith as antiquated, naïve, and gullible? Yet Jesus is there, waiting for us with deep truths.

These deep truths are inevitably deeper than we are prepared to comprehend. Jesus reveals Himself to Nicodemus as not just “a teacher who has come from God” (as Nicodemus calls Him), but as the “Son of Man” and God’s “only Son.” And Jesus ups the stakes to eternal bliss or eternal damnation based on this very fact alone: “everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life … but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Nicodemus definitely got more than he bargained for by coming to this “teacher” by night. As we think about this “all-or-nothing” statement by Christ, we are reminded of the gospel a few days ago where he proclaimed, “whoever is not with me is against me,” that is, scattering people instead of gathering to the Kingdom. Why does our Lord deal in these absolutes? There can be no doubt here that He is asking us to be “all-in,” much like He asked Abraham to sacrifice his son or Noah to build the ark (see the post, A Glimpse of Heaven). And just as Abraham’s assent was blessed by founding the nations and Noah’s assent was blessed by saving humanity from destruction, our assent to Christ will be blessed with everlasting life. In all cases, the call is personal. It is an individual meeting with the unfathomable God. Just like Nicodemus, we all must go to have a personal encounter with Christ to listen to what He has to tell us.

Pope Benedict the XVI put this succinctly at the beginning of his encyclical on love: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est, 1). Today’s gospel is one of many very concrete examples of this encounter in action. 

Jesus proclaims elsewhere in John’s gospel, “I am the light of the world” (Jn 8:12), and He makes a similar statement here with Nicodemus. His words have a bit of an edge for Nicodemus since he came to Christ at night: “And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.” He is urging Nicodemus to come to Him in the light of day, openly. But more than that, He needs Nicodemus to understand that God and truth dwell in the light, and this is something to always glory in, to be proud of; in fact, by believing in this truth and light, and acting in it, a person is securing for himself or herself a place in Heaven.

Jesus mentions the concept of being exposed, and there is absolutely an aspect of vulnerability in this. As He says, the “verdict” is that “people preferred darkness to light,” thus living in the light does not exempt one from pain and suffering as a result of this exposed vulnerability. This fact is wonderfully demonstrated in Jesus’s incredible comparison of Himself to Moses’s serpent on the staff. That story from the Book of Numbers speaks of events 1,475 years before Christ sits with Nicodemus on the roof. The passage is exceedingly odd at first glance: God first punishes the Israelites for complaining by sending poisonous serpents among them. In terms of today’s gospel, we could say that they are living in darkness (complaining and turning from God), and as a result they are bit by serpents and die. Upon their admission of guilt and atonement, Moses prays for deliverance, after which God instructs him to mount a serpent on a pole; subsequently, when the people look up at the serpent on the pole after being bitten, they are spared from death. Before we wonder what kind of witchcraft is going on here, let’s again consider it in terms of today’s gospel reading: by looking up at the serpent, the Jews in the desert are re-confirming their belief in God, who promises to protect them. They gaze upon the source of their suffering, the serpent, exposed, held up in the light for all to see, and they do not die. Importantly, they do not avoid suffering (that is, they continue to be bitten by serpents), but they avoid death through their continually re-confirmed faith in God.

Moses and the Brazen Serpent (1898), Augustus John | Creative Commons, courtesy UCL Art Museum/ArtUK. I like the impressionistic style Augustus John employs in this painting, the flowing waves in the forms suggesting a divine entrance into the fabric of humanity. As with any encounter with the divine, sin will merit pain and “gnashing of teeth,” and the purifying energy of God may not be pleasant for those in sin. I also see a bit of the devil in the bare-chested man on the right side of the canvas, which for me, at least, recollects the Garden of Eden connection. 

It would be fair to say that the serpent is the symbol of humanity’s sin against God, ever since Adam and Eve in the garden. This sin is poisonous and it brings about the reign of death. The people repent and say to Moses, “We have sinned in complaining against the LORD and you. Pray the LORD to take the serpents away from us.” The act of looking up, heavenward, to the sign of the sin they lived with, is the action that reminds them of their dependence on God and his saving mercy. God’s divine mercy flows to the sinful, bitten individual in that moment, not through the arcane power of a bronze staff, but through the symbol that the staff presents to the Jewish believers in God. As Catholics, we know well that in the liturgy, divine sanctification works in and through symbols, from the altar and ambo to the bread and wine. The bronze serpent on the staff is this type of sacramentalized symbol that His prophet on earth made under His instruction.

The Jews understood the symbolic and importance of this staff as a way to encounter God’s grace and kept it around for centuries. They may have begun to confuse the symbolic function of the staff with a divine presence, however, because 740-ish years later we read in 2 Kings that King Hezekiah orders the destruction of the staff, which he calls Nehushtan (“a mere piece of brass”) because the Jews were burning incense to it and essentially treating it like an idol. 

Now I don’t know much about divine numerology, but I do find it interesting that exactly another 740-ish years later, we hear Jesus tell Nicodemus the Pharisee: “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” With this statement, the Word of God reveals the full scope of this symbol Moses was instructed to make. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent”: note that the parallel being drawn is to the fixing of the serpent to the pole and lifting it up, the fact of exposure for all to see. “So must the Son of Man be lifted up”: this refers to his crucifixion, where he becomes the ultimate symbol for humanity. And finally the salvific import: “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Like the sinful Jews who re-confirmed their belief in God and were saved from dying, we receive an infinitely greater promise and divine grace given to us when we behold Christ on the Cross, believe in Him, and are granted eternal life that eradicates all sway of death.

Yes, consider this! Christ is admitting that living in the light constitutes suffering at the hands of those who live in the darkness. What greater sign than His broken and crucified Body hanging on the Cross for all to see? But just as the suffering from being bitten by serpents is ameliorated by gazing at that exposed suffering on a pole, our suffering from sin in this life is ameliorated by gazing on that suffering enacted on the Lord who gave Himself up to tormentors on our behalf. This is exactly what “on our behalf” entails! He allowed Himself to be affixed on the Cross like the serpent on Moses’s staff so that we could have salvation as we gaze upon Him and live in His light!

Moses and the Bronze Serpent, mural in All Saints Margaret Street church in London (1889), tiles painted by Alexander Gibbs | photo courtesy Lawrence OP, flickr.com. Note that over the centuries, the connection of the bronze serpent and the cross has been made much more explicitly, as in this tile work.

Sometimes the scope of God’s saving plan is just breathtaking. So many moments of patience and mercy over the millennia, from Adam and Eve, through Moses, and ultimately Jesus Christ. And so subversive of our normal worldly affections, too, in the use of the lowly and hated serpent as a resounding symbol for overcoming sin, much like using the reviled Cross as a throne for our Savior.

I am brought back to the all-or-nothing statements we keep encountering this Lent. After this reflection, I am struck by the fact that Jesus is saying these absolutes because He must remind us that He is God’s plan, God’s gift. To not recognize and believe in Him is to throw God’s gift back in His Face. It is worse than living in sin — it is a deliberate act of defiance and rejection of our Creator. We must listen to Christ, and St. Paul does a fantastic job of reminding us in today’s second reading: “God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ — by grace you have been saved.”

Serpent Illustration by Katie Scott | courtesy katie-scott.tumblr.com.

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