The serpent: a symbol of life

At yesterday’s Mass, the first reading came from Numbers (Nm 21:4-9)–the same reading we had on Latare Sunday.

We all know the story of the serpent from Numbers. The Israelites began to think to themselves as they traveled across the desert, “At least when we were slaves, we were fed and had a place to live.” They began to appreciate all that they once had, and, in the midst of a desert where they had nothing, they began to complain and asked Moses to attend to their needs.

Moses then called upon God, and God, in response and punishment, sent serpents to the land. Many died, we are told. The people began to repent for complaining, and God, seeing their contrition, tells Moses: “Make a saraph and mount it on a pole,and whoever looks at it after being bitten will live.”

We are then told: “Moses accordingly made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole,and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpentlooked at the bronze serpent, he lived.”

It’s an interesting image that those who looked at this serpent were saved, for we typically don’t think of a serpent as something that could carry that kind of saving power.

Yet the serpent represents life in a very useful way, and it was seen that way. The Hebrews saw the serpent as a being that represents life and healing. The serpent stood for life because it repreatedly leaves behind its old skin after it “overflows”–that is, after its skin is no longer able to contain it.

The same is true for Christ, whom of course this story foreshadows. Christ, too, represents life and healing, not only his life and his healing, but our life and our healing. And in that same way, Christ could never be contained in his own phyiscal body.

And when we turn to Christ, as when the Israelites turned to the serpent, we are able to be saved, transformed, and healed!

It’s not an easy thing to do. The account from Numbers informs us that not everyone looked at the serpent; and so, not everyone was saved. It’s not easy to turn to Christ, because when we look into the light of Christ, we see how much we fall short; we see our imperfections and our failings. We see our own sin.

But turn to Christ we must.

And we, like the serpent, must shed all that keeps us from Christ: we must shed our sin, we must crawl into new life. It’s not always easy, because it’s far more comfortable to remain in our normal ways. It’s easier, sometimes, to live in the past.

But life is not there! When we stay in our “old skin”, we stop changing. And folks, where there is no change, there is no life.