Second Sunday of Lent, Evensong, 8 March 2020
Picture: detail from the Moses window
Preacher: Canon Robert Titley
Preacher: Canon Robert Titley
Reading Numbers 21.4–9
During Lent, we imagine ourselves with Jesus in the wilderness as he prepares to start his ministry. In the lesson, we find the Israelites there, escaped from Egypt but now attacked by snakes. It’s a horrific scene – we can see it in the Moses window above the high altar – and it reminds me of a moment at school when I realised the power of the written word.
The thought of snakes frightened and disgusted me, but then we were made to read DH Lawrence’s poem 'Snake'. Lawrence describes so wonderfully his encounter with the reptile – 'one of the lords of life' – so when he says that, despite his fear, 'I liked him', I could see how. Seeing through the eyes of his words, I might have liked the snake too.
Lawrence says he was going against 'the voice of [his] education', but he was doing more than that, for the snake – legless, forked tongue, fast and venomous – touches our ancient fears. When our ancestors in faith asked themselves why the world often seemed an alien place, they were inspired to tell the story of Adam and Eve. The character that leads these prototype humans astray is, of course, the snake, and the verdict of God, 'I will put enmity between you and the woman', suggests that snake phobia is as old as humanity itself.
In today’s story the snakes are killers, but – Lawrence was right – they need not always be our enemies. In the story, Moses makes a friendly snake, a bronze serpent, and all who look on it live. We, in our turn, extract snake venom to make medicine. So it is that this old enemy is also a symbol of healing, whether it is Moses' serpent on a pole or the serpent that curls round the rod of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. One or other of these often appears in medical iconography, like the badges of the Ambulance Service and the Royal Army Medical Crops.
The snake is a particularly good symbol for military medicine, which has an ambiguity about it, healing those whose task can be to hurt; it's also a reminder of the risks in all medicine, where hurting and healing live close together. The Greek word pharmakon can mean 'poison' or 'medicine' (hence ‘pharmacy’), because the stuff that harms can also be that which heals – and the other way round.
In fact, the serpent is a good symbol for our entire experience of this world. There is what may appear to be an easy way of seeing life, in which all the good stuff comes from God, and everything that is harmful comes from the devil. But if you really look at the way the world works, you see that hurt and harm are woven into the fabric of creation and so are the ultimate responsibility of God. You see that God, who wills our health and wholeness, also permits things that deny these.
We experience this mixture in every evensong, when our prayers for the ills of the world are surrounded by beautiful music. I asked two choristers earlier what they listened to apart from Tudor church music: one said, ‘Coldplay,’ the other, ‘Mike Oldfield.’ And there we have it: the genetic mutations that throw up a William Byrd or a Chris Martin also produce the coronavirus. Our world is ambiguous, snake-like. It speaks with forked tongue. But why?
The theoretical answer is that this is the price of freedom. A lot of harm is the world comes from human freewill, and God can't prevent one without abolishing the other. Indeed, God needs to give the whole physical universe autonomy, to make the world make itself, for genuine freewill to emerge.
That is the theory. Meanwhile, however, there is the practical concern of this problem, this pain, this particular life of yours or of someone you care about: this thing that is assailing me or you, is it the serpent that hurts, or the serpent that heals? Might it be both? What must we combat, and what must we embrace?
In the space that this service provides, in the space we must clear for God each day (as we are especially encouraged to do in Lent), part of our job is simply 'look upon' these things, as the Israelites look in fear upon the poisonous serpents and look in hope upon the healing serpent of Moses. We ask for the wisdom of God to show us the true nature of whatever is before us, in its threat and its promise. And then we ask for the energies of God to be with us and within us for whatever we must do next.