Friday, March 12, 2021

On Serpents, Scepters, and Storied Remedies: Lent 4 and Numbers 21:4-9

The winged staff with two intertwined snakes, or caduceus, has been an icon in American medicine since 1902. The image is rooted in ancient Greek and Roman mythological stories of healing and resurrection. In the midst of the pandemic, we likely have become more familiar with an alternative, a lone snake wrapped around a single scepter. This adaptation has potential origin in Sunday’s lectionary from Numbers and serves as the central emblem of the likes of the World Health Organization. As we lean into the one-year “anniversary” of COVID-19, these medicinal symbols have transcended mere imagery; they are known by real names of doctors, nurses, scientists, researchers, and the great cloud of witnesses we call emergency and frontline workers. We may also know such saints as neighbor or aunt, spouse or child. They have been pillars of hope who have kept our eyes up and out as we look for liberation from our individual grief and healing from collective pain.

In Sunday’s Old Testament narrative, those who wandered the wilderness lost one of their own pillars. Aaron, their priestly comforter and interpreter of Moses’ works, had died. Their grief still raw, the people of Israel wondered if they would ever make it to the promised land or if they had been left for dead. Fleeing oppression in Egypt, they found themselves endlessly fighting new oppositions to their freedom. The deaths mounted and pleas for deliverance paralleled complaints against Moses and God, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness.”

This prayer likely mirrors our own from the last twelve months, which makes God’s initial response concerning. Instead of the divine compassion of Exodus 3, God sends poisonous serpents that bite the people (Numbers 21:6)? There is no simple interpretation of this text of terror. As empathetic theologian and minister, all I can fathom is those who first lived this narrative were looking for a source of their suffering in much the same ways we do. In their storied world, they embraced this narrative to endure the trauma: if God was the sender of the serpents, maybe this same God could provide the deliverance for their wearied bodies? So they prayed. Moses did, too. And God intervened, through Moses, with a bronze serpent wrapped around a pole, “and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live” (Numbers 21:9).

The circumstances of the perpetual Lent we have endured since last year leads us to look for redemptive truth in our own wilderness wanderings. In the abundance of grief, we are desperate for the healing, harmony, and liberation promised to us when we began our faith journey. Instead, we have been bit by the poisonous serpents and forced to mourn the death of yet another loved one or facilitate yet another (virtual) funeral. We lament as we notice the venomous fangs have punctured social, economic, political, and religious systems, some becoming aware of the wounds for the first time. These snakes inflict suffering on individuals and communities alike, manifested in pervasive poverty, school-to-prison pipelines, mass incarceration, racial biases and related violence against Black and Brown bodies, discriminatory wages, rise of white supremacy, and the complicity of those of us who have the privilege to opt in or out of the intersection of our faith and the real pain of our neighbors. COVID-19 has also unleashed a brood of snakes by way of inequitable access to testing, medical care, and vaccinations. In light of it all, we are increasingly overwhelmed, tired, and a fair share of complaints layer our prayers. One thing we know, contrary to the narrative of our ancient wandering siblings, God did not send these malicious creatures into our midst; we did. This is the hard confessional truth of Lent.

Nevertheless, God sends us remedy. In the person of Jesus, our caduceus has been raised on behalf of all who suffer and grieve, promising to resurrect life out of even the most despairing of human trauma. This same Jesus, then, raises us to embody cruciform remedies as Christ’s creative work in and for the world God so loves (Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:13-17). This is discipleship. This is what it frames our agency in the gospel and balming bravery in a world desperate for healing, hope, and movement towards a reconciled future. Vietnamese poet, mystic, and activist, Thich Nhat Hanh, says it beautifully:

They don’t publish
the good news.
The good news is published
by us…
Listen! You have the ears that can hear it.
Bow your head.
Listen to it.
Leave behind the world of sorrow
and preoccupation
and get free.
The latest good news
is that you can do it. (“The Good News”)

My kids have figured out Lent is longer than forty days- forty-six, to be exact. The liturgical season does not count Sundays. They are our break from confessional fasting and hallowed centering on the resurrection before us. Sundays are bronze serpents intertwined on the pole of our pilgrimage, which remind us God is with us and before us. As we continue the long Lenten road, may we create space to remember and celebrate the good work happening all around us. May we find remedy in this biting age through the witness of faithful people who rise up as publications of harmonious hope. May we look to these sacred sending stories as echoes of the latest good news- you can do it! Better said, in Jesus Christ, God has done it. By God’s grace, look and listen. Amen.