Friday, 20 March 2009

The Serpent on a Pole

For all of its beauty and joy, this world is founded on pain and loss. Darwin is not a challenge to Christian belief because he shows how species arise over time (rather than being created at one fixed point) but because he makes it impossible to imagine a time before death and pain entered the world. They have been the constant companions of creation, in all their nastiest forms. Even creationists cannot believe that Adam brought death into the world.

Whatever the theological problems this raises, the solution does not include running away. The Israelites in the desert tried that, and died. The cure they were offered was staring at the very thing they feared. They were to stare hard at the serpent death which terrified them so, according to Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Rabbi Phyllis Berman in Red Cow, Red Blood, Red Dye: Staring Death & Life in the Face.

For Christians this becomes even more poignant. For us it is Christ who becomes the serpent on a pole. Looking at him, we see what horrifies us; agonising suffering and bloody death. It is easy, with practise, to become complacent about it, seeing new life springing from this agony. We do not serve our God well by doing so.

The serpent in the wilderness was offered to allow the people of God to face their terrors. They looked into the pit of the image of death. Christ offers us the image of our worst imaginings, and of all the suffering of nature. Every meadow pipit pushed out by the baby cuckoo, every caterpillar split open by the parasitic wasp who has eaten though it, each is summoned up in the image of the creator of them dragging out a slow death from suffocation. Lifted up so, he draws all to him.

Somewhere in this, I feel, lies something of a solution. It is far from an intellectually satisfying solution. Yet it is played out again and again. Suffering can demean and destroy, and yet on occasion individuals can transcend themselves through it. These last months have seen the suffering of the Cameron family and of Jade Goody. The circumstances are totally different, yet, yet… The extraordinarily moving exchange in the Commons between two bereaved fathers, both knowing the constant anxiety of having a child with a life-limiting disease was a moment of reality in the too-often artificial rhetoric of that cold institution. Jade Goody’s decision not to hide her slow descent to death has opened up conversations about facing death over the whole country.

I am not speaking of the general need to address urgent problems, true as it is that we must. There are many issues on which we are out of time, and running faster will not serve us. Unpleasant truths about the thoughts of those who are our co-religionists. Painful realisations about the financial state of many of our congregations. Nasty facts about the age structure of those congregations, and just why they are so structured. Not to mention the now fast-ticking bomb of ecological disaster.

All this is true and urgent, but it is only a weak reflection of the story of the bronze serpent and the man on the cross. That promise is about facing the terror of pain and death in the word, and being blessed in the facing of it. That story underlies all the other terrors we need to deal with, and if we do not face it, we cannot face them. We need to turn and face that serpent because only by looking steadily on its face can we hope to gain healing for our other ills.

Posted by Rosemary Hannah on Friday, 20 March 2009 at 12:36pm GMT | TrackBack
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Categorised as: just thinking

Thank you. You have helped me preach this Sunday's texts.

Posted by: Chip on Saturday, 21 March 2009 at 2:40am GMT

This is so powerful. Thanks.

Posted by: Ann on Saturday, 21 March 2009 at 2:55am GMT

All this is true and urgent, but it is only a weak reflection of the story of the bronze serpent and the man on the cross. That promise is about facing the terror of pain and death in the word, and being blessed in the facing of it. '


Beauty of expression & the beauty of truth.

Thank you

Posted by: Rev L Roberts on Saturday, 21 March 2009 at 1:06pm GMT

I was reader of the Hebrew Bible lesson this morning. I have to confess, upon proclaiming (para.) "The people complained...and the LORD sent poisonous serpents", I was rather reminded of some bosses I've had...

Posted by: JCF on Sunday, 22 March 2009 at 6:55pm GMT

Having just returned from a hospital procedure involving the snipping of my prostate for sign of cancer, I agree with Rosemary that the prospect of pain is one which we all have to face during our lifetime (think of the more difficult prcoess of the pangs of childbirth, for women!). What helps me in all of this is to realise that God in Christ has suffered worse than that - in God's own experience of the human condition. This is why the practice of following the Stations of the Cross during Lent is so helpful in our tradition.

What perhaps does worrr me, is the reality of a Church which cause more suffering than necessary by outlawing a category of people who, because of their inbuilt sexual preference or gender, have to face ridicule and persecution - not only from the world but from the very institution which ought to be caring and understanding of their situation.

When Princes of the Church - like the one in Nigeria - do all they can to vilify and persecute such people, one wonders what ever happened to the 'God of Love' they affect to represent.

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Sunday, 22 March 2009 at 11:04pm GMT

OK, maybe I'm too rational for my own good, but I heard that lesson being read this morning, and thought "What the heck? God sends snakes to attack the Israalites after they grumble, so the people get religion in a hurry, and then God instructs Moses to create a bronze serpent, so that whenever anyone looks on it they will be healed of snakebite?"
I'm no scholar of biblical criticism, but, what I reflected about on this lesson was, take away the indirect references, and we have Moses constructing a graven image, an idol. At God's command, but an idol nonetheless! I have to wonder whether this text is an ancient, pre-monotheistic folk memory, handed down through the centuries, then cleaned up with monotheistic references.

Posted by: peterpi on Monday, 23 March 2009 at 2:14am GMT

An idol or an icon?

Posted by: Erika Baker on Monday, 23 March 2009 at 9:26am GMT

Peterpi: I agree the passage, in some kind of "plain reading", portrays God in a very bad light - one does not expect a worthy God to be both cause *and* "solution" to problems simultaneously. Similarly, while one sees how snakebite is a logical afflication, people are not known for getting well again just by looking at bronze serpents otherwise medics would be out of business fast.
It would be interesting to know what the word rendered variously `Lord' (in my NetBible) or `LORD' (thanks JCF) actually is - at least one term (cf `Lord God of Hosts') is a complete warmongeror.
So the whole passage may well be a redactive plant after its apparent time. I thought much the same thing yesterday on hearing it, too.

Posted by: Tim on Monday, 23 March 2009 at 3:36pm GMT

Erika Baker: it would be nice to think of it as an icon, at least in its time, but 2Kings 18:4 would indicate its clear demise into an idol.

Posted by: Tim on Monday, 23 March 2009 at 3:38pm GMT

It would be good to get some rabbinical comment on this passage to enrich and diversify our takes of it. Very interesting discussion. Yes I think you are right to see it as of very early provenance.

A strangely powerful story as if it is in itself iconic. Mesmerizing...

Posted by: Rev L Roberts on Monday, 23 March 2009 at 8:04pm GMT

I offer this commentary on the Numbers passage as it may be of interest, coming at the story, as it does, from a different angle. gradient coming from another interpretive tradition that is used to dealing with / accomodating disappointment.

As the rise of rabbinic Judaism after the fall of the Jerusalem temple (CE 70) shows.

Posted by: Rev L Roberts on Monday, 23 March 2009 at 8:15pm GMT

I have just found this which both seems to bear out certain comments and also adds some interesting extra historical and lingusitic info.

quite fascinating !

Posted by: Rev L Roberts on Monday, 23 March 2009 at 8:22pm GMT

This post is excellent; suffering, whether caused by human violence or living in a world of disease, accident and death...this is a powerful challenge to belief in a benevolent deity; I have long struggled with these facts.

Yet, when I consider the size and energy of the visible universe and consider that God is beyond that, larger than that, somehow responsible for all existence (in a mysterious and unknown way); well then God must be quite Other when compared to human/animal life. Like Job's conclusion, it is indeed hard to challenge such a being from my limited point of view. For one, mortality must include some pain or my body would be damaged every day without my notice. But why so much unavoidable pain? Why so many innocents who suffer? A thinking person could easily conclude there is no God or that he is neither ethical nor personal, perhaps uncaring or not aware.

I have no easy answer either, but as many have noted, in Christianity the Divine graphically shares our suffering while also promising us final relief from pain and death.

The best response to the problem I've heard was a friend of mine who argues that we do not know how suffering got here, or why; we can't really know, for even science has no final answer why. But we know what we must do with the suffering we encounter, and Jesus is our model for that response and the source of our strength, peronally and communally.

Thanks for a great post. My first time reading on this blog.

Posted by: LC on Monday, 23 March 2009 at 9:47pm GMT

Thank you Rev L Roberts; Elohistic source is exactly the sort of thing I was thinking of. Glad to know we can spot these things :)

Posted by: Tim on Tuesday, 24 March 2009 at 12:12pm GMT

"Job's conclusion"

Well, that's it exactly. My partner, a spiritual man for whom organized religion is a major bastion of evil, is quite fond of Job. Especially chapter 38, and especially verse 35:

"Canst thou send lightnings, that they may go and say unto thee, Here we are?"

"even science has no final answer why"

I know of some believers, at least one anyway, who I expect would have great difficulty with this statement, though I agree completely with you.

Posted by: Ford Elms on Tuesday, 24 March 2009 at 2:23pm GMT

I suggest you read some good account of the Buddha's enlightenment, and the basis for the the concept of suffering in that philosophy. The whole life-in-death or living through dying aspect of Christianity, in its cultural impact, is one of the chief things that fail it, since one of the first things anyone is likely to say about belief is 'why is there suffering?', or 'why did God make Jesus die?'

We may have all made our peace with the theological or mystical ramifications of such things (convoluted though they are) but the fixation almost amongst ourselves even on the death at the end of Jesus ministry often completely obscures for the non-Believer the notion of the abundant life in the here and now of God's Kingdom, won by the way we think of relating to each other as sinners all. Instead those beyond the Church themselves equate Christian belief with misery, death and suffering, and the teachings of the Church for them prompt a focus only on the primeval ego sickness of mind that is fear of death, and the simple wish to escape that fate. But as Lewis has on his gravestone: "All men must bear their going hence".

There's a certain cast of AC cleric that appears to like quoting from children's books (recollections from the confines of the safe space of the middle-class childhood, perhaps, or their imagining that things were and should be so), so I will leave one here from the Tombs of Atuan - paraphrased from memory - "There are dark and nameless gods, and they are very powerful, but they do not deserve the worship or service of any man".

Suffering we may have to say hello to every day, but for death there's only one greeting - and we are not obliged to rehearse it every day of our lives.

Posted by: orfanum on Thursday, 26 March 2009 at 6:57am GMT
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