St Mary’s Chapel, Nashotah House Theological Seminary
O Almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men: Grant unto thy people that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.
May the words of my lips and the thoughts and meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength, and our redeemer. Amen.
“I hate snakes, Jock. I hate ‘em!”
The people of Israel can probably sympathize with Indiana Jones and his famous line from Raiders of the Lost Ark. But so can most Christians.
Serpents have a poor Biblical reputation. From Genesis onward, they get a bad rap. Sandwiched between the curses of serpents in the Old Testament, and snakes being killers which can only miraculously be overcome in the Acts of the Apostles, we have this passage from the Old Testament where not only does God send serpents, probably asps, very dangerous, to execute Judgement, but an image of the serpent is commanded to be made in order to heal following the intercessions of Moses.
Now I’m going to say something surprising: This passage prefigures Christ. No really! I know what you’re thinking: of course it does!
I mean, Christ himself makes reference to this passage and that’s why our gospel reading is tied to it. This has often been thought of in terms of the Cross first.
I’m not as silly as I sound, then, in suggesting there is something more profound to be reminded of here. A reminder of the incarnation itself, not just the cross.
Healing in the Bible happens in many ways.
Jesus heals many times in the Gospels, from commanding the lame to walk to commending the sick for the faith which makes them well. In the Acts of the Apostles, healing occurs in the name of Jesus. In the Old Testament, it is perhaps more interesting. Direct prayer to God, or intercession with the burning of incense heals in almost all cases.
In one exception, Isaiah commands a poultice of figs to be made for King Hezekiah. Naaman is washed of his leprosy in the river Jordan, in another. Finally snake bites are healed by the image of bronze snake.
Now, using a balm was a common practice. Washing makes sense to cure leprosy, even before we get into prefiguring Baptism. But I turn again to Dr. Jones and quote, “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?”
The answer is found in the Gospel today. Jesus warns us in the Gospel we are going to die in our sins. It is only through Christ coming that we can be saved from death.
Redemption in Christ
God redeems. He takes what is fallen and restores it to wholeness. Even if you haven’t studied Hebrew, you probably know that Shalom has this meaning of wholeness and not just ‘absence of war’ as we most often think of ‘peace’ today.
In the Old Testament, God took the cursed snake, which was symbolic of sin, death, and judgement, and turned it into something that, by faith, would heal. God took our fallen humanity, assumed it, redeemed it, and turned it into something that, by faith, will heal.
Gregory of Naziansus once said “that which He has not assumed He has not healed.” As Fr. Holtzen likes to put it, flesh saves flesh. As our Old Testament lesson shows us, snake saves snake.
In the midst of a season that can be, focused on the cross itself, despite perhaps being veiled, our readings today remind us of the incarnational nature of salvation in Lent.
Flesh saves flesh. The incarnation of Christ, divinity in humanity, saves us. God assumes humanity to redeem it.
And so, Lord, our faith looks up to thee, thou Lamb of Calvary, who was lifted up, God made flesh, that our flesh might be healed.
 S. Gregory of Naziansus, Epistle 101.5