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Snakes and Ladders

The quire at Salisbury Cathedral
Posted By : Edward Probert Sunday 14th September 2014

A sermon preached by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor on Holy Cross Day

Philippians 2.6-11; John 3.13-17

In the Temple in Jerusalem - the first Hebrew Temple, built by King Solomon within a generation of his father's conquest of the city, the Temple whose construction is such a major theme in the Old Testament - in that Temple stood a large image in bronze of a snake.  We know this because we are told so explicitly in the narrative of chapter 18 in the Second Book of Kings, which says that in the early years of his reign King Hezekiah 'broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.'

There are several things that are surprising about this.

I suspect that for most of us culturally, it is of all things immensely hard to imagine paying cultic devotion to the image of a snake.  Devotion of any kind to snakes is very rare, in my experience, whilst, by contrast, fear and loathing seem to come pretty readily.  But when you remember that the image of the snake has wound itself into all sorts of things to do with medicine and healing, from ancient times right into the present day, that surprise diminishes a little.  You will see the snake on statues of the classical god Aesculapius, you'll see it in the logo at the top of the website of the British Medical Association, and many other such uses from then till now, and around the world. For some reason, snakes equal healing, in which case a degree of devotion to the image is maybe understandable.

In this particular cathedral, we are familiar enough with the sight of snakes, because the upper eastern window is an 18th century depiction of Moses holding up his brazen serpent, illustrating the passage from the 21st chapter of Numbers when God plagues his troublesome people with snakes and then Moses, by means of lifting up this brass effigy, enables people bitten by them to be healed.  That story, inserted in the narrative of the desert wanderings of God's people after their exodus, was no doubt a kind of explanation or justification of the presence in the Temple of that image of Nehushtan.

Which brings me to the most surprising thing.  We know Jewish belief and worship as  rigorously monotheistic and shunning of sacred objects of devotion - the very idea that in the holiest place of God's people there should have been any devotional effigy of a creature of any kind.  But it was there for many centuries, until it was purged from the Temple by the puritan reforms of King Hezekiah, shortly before the whole Temple itself was desecrated, plundered and then destroyed by the Babylonians when they conquered Jerusalem almost exactly two thousand six hundred years ago.  That event made all of this the stuff of mere historical memory, even if it's stuff in which we can infer the residue of long-lost devotions and long-lost controversies.

This journey I've taken you on down some byways of biblical study may seem incredibly remote from today, 14th September's, celebration of the ancient festival of the Holy Cross.  But not in fact all that remote, because just before one of the most famous sentences in all scripture comes John 3.14 and 15; the text quoted in our eastern window: 'Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.'  The healing belief in the brazen serpent is there the analogy for the saving belief in Christ crucified.

Religion is always a multi-faceted and complex thing, with different experiences, different interpretations, different traditions, and it lends itself to controversy.  We've had whiffs of the long-lost controversy in ancient Jerusalem over the use of an image in the Temple - was this venerated thing a holy and honourable part of their tradition or was it an idol, an accursed residue of some earlier Canaanite religion?  The destruction of that brazen image has been echoed in very recent times by acts of some fanatical puritan Muslim groups, destroying the rockface Buddhas at Bamayan in Afghanistan, smashing churches and Shiite shrines in Syria and Iraq right now.  And it was echoed much nearer home when the holy images and relics in this cathedral were smashed and burnt in the 16th and 17th centuries.  So it is that in our library's manuscript numbered 148, where there is a schedule some nine pages long listing our relics, and where the very first entry said 'Of Cristes cross are many parties', that entire list has been physically blotted out, and of those objects nothing at all remains.  Religions tend to be pulled both towards elaborate physical devotion and also to the contrasting pole of purity and simplicity, and sometimes these tensions are expressed destructively.

So we here now don't have the 'many parties' of the true cross which our forebears could venerate, which may be as well because they were no doubt spurious anyway.  Anyway the true cross, the Holy Cross of this day and every day, is not the bits of wood but the self-giving of Jesus Christ.  And that meaning has never been better expressed than in the two parts of scripture we heard today, the 16th verse of John chapter 3, and the 6 verses of Paul's letter to the Philippians which describe Christ emptying himself - pouring himself out to the lowliest imaginable state, death on a cross - and then being exalted to the extent that the whole universe kneels even at his name.

For all its elaboration, for all its tradition, for all its controversies, our faith is very simple.  We believe and trust in the one who gave himself to death that we might have life.  His work was not violence and destruction, however much his followers, like adherents of many other faiths down the millennia, have been drawn to these.  His life was the expression of self-giving love, which leads not to condemnation but to life.  The cross is the simplest sign of that, and more important than our veneration of it, is that we live it, in lives offered and so expressing the otherwise inexpressible love of God for his world.