During Lent I have included in the prayers of thanksgiving a refrain from a hymn by Dan Schutte, the first line of which is ‘Holy darkness, blessed night’. Schutte has taken his inspiration from the writings of St John of the Cross, the 16th Spanish poet and priest who wrote The Dark Night of the Soul. For St John the ‘dark night’ was both a description of the human struggle for understanding and faith, and a metaphor/name for God.
The dualism of dark and light is common in Christian thought and has unfortunately led to dark being associated with ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ and light with ‘good’ or ‘God’. The uncritical use of this dualistic language has diminished and denigrated those with darker skin pigmentations.
Theologically too such dualism has been unhelpful in categorizing struggle, doubt, unknowing, darkness, and fear as opposites of faith – whereas they have always been a part of faith. With this is mind Schutte begins his hymn with the seeming oxymoron of holy darkness.
The ceramic vase we have here this morning, made by Bronwynne Cornish and Denys Watkins, has snaky looking tentacles coming up from below, posing as question marks. St Paul in II Corinthians[i] likens us to earthen vessels, and therefore maybe this vase is suggesting the scary-looking tentacles are arising in us – our deep questions and fears.
One of the joys of visiting Bangkok as a family in 2006 was going to a snake farm. There we were entertained by king cobras and a variety of their venomous mates. A man, draped in a python, proceeded to put the snake around my neck. Somewhat apprehensively I nodded my consent. The python, probably used to tourists, seemed quite relaxed about it all. He [or was it a she?] just stayed put and only protested when my hold on his/her neck tightened beyond her/his comfort.
Snakes, particularly for those of us unfamiliar with them, epitomize fear. The thrill of having a beautiful animal caressing your neck is offset by the knowledge of its potential deadliness.
It reminded me of the Janet Frame short story,[ii] You Are Now Entering the Human Heart, about an English teacher who took her class to the Discovery Centre in the City Museum. There a gentleman told the children how harmless snakes were and how they were misunderstood. The gentleman, with a python as a scarf, invited the teacher forward to demonstrate his point.
The teacher had had a bad week. One of those weeks when she’d wondered why she kept doing what she was doing. There is little appeal about thirty cranky and tiresome children when one is likewise cranky and tired.
Now her bad week had just got worse. She was being asked to demonstrate the benign nature of snakes when her personal feelings were far from benign. Should she just confess her fear upfront and lose considerable face? Or suppress her fear and tough it out. She went for the latter. All went well until that snake moved.
Christianity as a religion has had a long and ambivalent relationship with fear. On the one hand it has tried to free us from fear[s], and yet on the other hand has also told us to fear hell, sex, difference, disapproval, and of course God. Instead of releasing us from our fears religion has often heightened them.
In John 3:14 & 15 there is mention of a snake: ‘And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man [the Human One] be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’
The background is chapter 21 in the Book of Numbers. The story goes that the wandering Israelites were in the desert hungry and thirsty and grumbling. And God, who seemingly didn’t like grumbling, sent along some poisonous snakes to bite them and kill them. You might think, like me, that God doesn’t send snakes to bite and kill people, but let’s just ignore this theological difficulty for a moment.
The Israelites faced with snakes and death said sorry to Moses for grumbling, and Moses passed on their sorry to God. Then comes what I think is the interesting bit. God tells Moses to craft a bronze serpent, a sculpture, put it on a pole and raise it skyward so that all who looked upon it lived. The people stared at what they feared and were healed.
Making an image of a snake in order to cure snakebite is called by anthropologists ‘sympathetic magic'. The image of the creature is said to offset the creature's power. It is also recorded in 1st Samuel 6 that it was done with mice[iii] – offsetting a plague of mice with images of mice.
Nowadays we could understand 'sympathetic magic' as similar to what immunologists do when making hyper-immune serum. A little of the disease is administered to a healthy person in order that their body develops its own immunity.
In ancient times there was a close relation between 'sympathetic magic' and the idea of scapegoating.[iv] Scapegoating is the belief that somehow an animal can carry the blame of a community, and thereby bring healing. [There are some significant ethical problems with this by the way, which I won’t elaborate upon now.] Isaiah 53 talks about a human 'suffering servant' carrying that blame. The early Christians, when struggling with the fact that their Messiah Jesus had been unjustly executed by the Romans, relied significantly on this lens of a scapegoat as a way of seeing the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Snakes get bad press. Generally they are feared, and in the second Judeo-Christian primeval story of humankind blamed. As I said last week, when you think about it the talking snake of Genesis 3 got a dirty deal. He was a tease but he also was more truthful than God - Adam and Eve didn't die from eating a particular fruit! The snake landed a disproportionate share of the blame and has been vilified literally and metaphorically ever since.
Is it any wonder commentators on John 3:14 &15 have been silent about the very obvious metaphorical reference to Jesus as a snake? How often have you heard about Jesus the snake? It's usually all lambs and lions, meek and mild.
The snake as a symbol has a long history. It slithers into Egypt, Africa, India, Japan, Mesopotamia, Canaan, and Greece. It is an ambiguous symbol. On the one hand it is dangerous, it kills, and it is to be feared. A serpent symbolizes the Satan. On the other hand, like in the Moses story, it is about healing and protection. Aesculapius, Greek God of medicine, had his staff entwined with a serpent, the spirit of life. It is a strange symbol, a synthesis of both life and death, not unlike a crucified saviour.
There is a well-known hymn “Lift High the Cross”. The original lyrics, which are a little cringe-worthy, are all about the victory that Christ has won. What is less well-known is that the ‘lifting’ is a reference to Jesus being like Moses’ snake – something vilified but which brings healing. Like with the scapegoat metaphor, I suspect the early Christians in struggling to understand both Jesus’ death and the power of that death in their lives, read this story of Moses and the snakes and recognized Jesus as the one was blamed and feared by the people, yet also the one – when the people looked at him – who would bring health, hope, and new life.
Fear is not to be feared. It is a part of life and faith. Good religion helps us face our fears, live with our fears, and find some healing. Bad religion heightens our fears by saying fear – like struggle, doubt, & darkness – is the opposite of faith, rather than a part of faith. Deep questions and fears are a part of us. In looking, rather than avoiding, in facing into rather than facing away, we might find strength and salos.[v] Lent is a time for looking.
And good religion helps us to find beauty and grace amongst the most unlikely people, circumstances, and creatures – even snakes.
[i] II Cor 4:7
[iii] I Samuel 6:4ff
[iv] Leviticus 16
[v] Salos is the Greek word for healing, wholeness and salvation