Whatever ever became of the bronze serpent?
Whatever ever came of the bronze serpent?
On September 14, the celebration of the exaltation of the Holy Cross, we read from Chapter 21 of the Book of Numbers:
“The Lord said to Moses: ‘Make a fiery serpent and put it on a standard. If anyone is bitten and looks at it, he shall live.’ Moses then made a bronze serpent and raised it on a standard.”
John 3:14 tells us that Jesus referred to it: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes will have eternal life in him.”
Do you know where the bronze serpent on the standard ended up?
The Second Book of Kings, Chapter 18: 1-6 tells us about King Hezekiah:
“He did what the Lord regards as right … He put his trust in the Lord, the God of Israel … He was devoted to the Lord, never turning from him …”
Hezekiah was clearly a good king. And yet look what he did (v. 4):
“He abolished the high places, broke the pillars cut down the sacred poles and smashed the bronze serpent which Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had offered sacrifices to it; it was called Nehushtan.”
(Hebrew nehoshet: bronze; nahazh: serpent.)
I’m sure there must have been protests! “You can’t do that! God ordered Moses to make that fiery serpent and to put it on the pole! You are defying God!”
And yet he did it. He didn’t just take it down and hide it away. He must have known its history and significance; and yet he smashed it. It was gone for good.
If anything, even something once explicitly ordained by God, clearly becomes an obstacle to true faith, we must not canonise it. Hezekiah realised the danger; he did what was right.
Are there elements in our practice of our faith as disciples of Jesus, or in our church, even things with a long tradition which many consider mandated by Jesus, or even which are clearly specified, which have now become obstacles to the mission of the church and to our life in the Body of Christ?
What can we learn from the example of Hezekiah?
LGBT – OK?
I suppose what we can learn is not to put too much faith in things, that nothing should come between us and the love of God. There is a danger that we can get bogged down in the superficial and, for example, the unnecessary venerating of objects, even the remains of much loved deceased bishops. I’m thinking of the late Fulton Sheen. What is that all about anyway? Is it not a waste of energy and rather unseemly behaviour to be quarrelling over whether he should be exhumed and which parish is entitled to venerate his remains? What really lies behind it, I wonder?
Really, what we can learn from Hezekiah is that changing or letting go of old habits is hard and we don’t like it. What matters in the end though? How we treat each other, the Beatitudes, following Christ. All objects,like Ozymandias, will end up in the sand and dust as will we all, of course. I’m no scholar but that’s what I’ve learned from Hezekiah. Put not your trust in objects. They can take over the better part of man/woman and distort and destroy what is good in each one of us, the Spirit within.
Truly, isn’t it time that clerical celibacy was made optional in the Roman discipline?