In our gospel today, Jesus applies the story of Moses lifting up the bronze serpent. In that story, the chosen people reject God and God sends fiery serpents to them. They repent and plead for Moses to intercede, which he does. God then tells Moses to raise a bronze serpent. Anyone who stares at this will be saved. This story brings out so much of the paradox that is Christianity, in the way it is written; in the way it has been depicted. Let’s have a look at it.
In the Hebrew, God asks Moses to raise up a saraph. No-one is quite sure what a saraph is. Some think it might have been a type of serpent or desert creature. Some think it might have been a depiction of an ancient god. We do know, though, that over time the saraph – or better known to us in the plural, the seraphim – came to be understood as a type of angel. A divine messenger. So, the bronze serpent could be seen as a divine message. To look at it, then, would be to repent, to turn back again to God’s Word.
But, you can read it another way. God asks Moses to raise a saraph. Moses, however, raises a snake. And we know the most famous snake in the Bible. Just as the serpent tempted Adam and Eve to reject God’s word, to go their own way, so too the people of Israel in the desert reject God’s commands. The snake therefore can also represent humanity’s temptation and fall. So, in staring at the snake, the people might see their own sinfulness.
Indeed, this particular snake – the bronze serpent of Moses – famously ends up representing both Israel’s God and Israel’s fall. Later on in the Bible, we learn that this bronze serpent has been placed in the Temple, the Temple being the sign of God’s presence to God’s people. However, we only hear about it in the context of Hezekiah, the faithful king, destroying it. Hezekiah presumably destroys it because it has ceased to point people to God, and has become an idol. It then shows both God’s power and Israel’s infidelity.
This story is also depicted by one of my favourite painters. Tintoretto: one of the great Venetian artists of the late Renaissance. Perhaps his most famous work – his Sistine chapel – is the massive series of paintings at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. The main series of paintings covers the large room that makes up the second floor of the building. The paintings criss-cross the entire room and provide Tintoretto’s interpretation of the Bible. All the paintings interpret each other, mapping out connections between major stories and events in the Bible. Right in the centre of the room, and one of the paintings that immediately captures your eye when you walk in, is that of Bronze Serpent. Some see it as the interpretative key to the whole room.
Tintoretto painted it when Venice was suffering from the plague. At the time, one of the supposed treatments for infection was snake meat. What was normally poisonous was thought to be curative if taken in the right dose. This approach to medicine is as old as medicine. (In fact, we find the same ambiguity in ancient Greek, where the word for poison and medicine can be the same: pharmakon; a fact made famous in modern philosophy.) So, Tintoretto manages to bring out the ambiguity as well. Interestingly, though, in the middle of the painting and so in the middle of the whole room is not the bronze serpent. It is the figure of a woman who is pointing at the serpent. This woman is thought to represent faith, and so faith becomes the key to understanding all the paintings. And that brings us to our gospel.
We see in all these things the paradox of Christianity. That through sin, death enters the world. But through death, God saves the world. On the cross, we see our attempt to kill God, and we see that in fact we kill ourselves. More importantly, though, we see on the Cross Jesus, who does not need to be there, as the Good Thief reminds us. He is only there because he wants to be with us and we have placed him there. The Cross therefore is the great double sign: a sign that reveals the great sin of humanity, as well as the great love of God. The revelation of the enormity of our sin, though, is eclipsed by the infinitely greater love of God. But we need faith to see that.
This is why Jesus tells us that he has not come to judge the world, but that if we reject him, we are already judged. The love we see on the Cross: what else could we want? What other meaning to life could there be? Of course, we are judged if we reject such love. We have chosen futility. We have chosen meaninglessness. We have chosen death. We have rejected the God of life and love, Who loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life.
This Lent, then, let’s not forget to look at the Cross. Let’s not forget to stare in silence at the centre and meaning of all history. Let’s find time to contemplate the mystery, the one who loves us beyond all understanding. As some recent poet wrote, what better place than here; what better time than now?!