Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Bronze Serpent - Why Did God Instruct Israel to Practise Idolatry?

This is my reflection on the Mass readings of this coming Sunday - Feast of The Exaltation of the Holy Cross – September 14, 2014.
Mass Readings: Nm 21:4-9; Phil 2:6-11; Jn 3:13-17

As a time-honoured sports fan, I watch many sport events; sometimes in person, but mostly on television. In my early years in North America, I was puzzled to see that in many games that I watched, a spectator or two in the crowds often would hold up a sign that said simply, “John 3:16”. Being unfamiliar with the Bible at the time, I thought it was a code word for promoting some kind of well-known merchandise. Eventually I realized that the signs were referring to this Sunday’s gospel reading, particularly this verse in John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.

The message is undeniably condensed and to the point. In the setting of a sporting venue or a crowded stadium where you can’t say much because people either can’t hear or won’t listen; drawing people’s attention to John 3:16 is a clever way to evangelize. But if I have a choice, I’d rather read out and explain in detail the preceding passage: And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life (John 3:14-15).

We are physical beings that perceive and communicate using our senses. Like a loving mother trying to get her baby’s attention using baby talk, God stoops down to our human level to communicate with us in an incarnational way that involves all of our senses. Top among God’s human techniques, or “baby talk” if you will, is the use of imagery that helps us visualize and understand things or ideas that are intangible or hard to grasp. Hidden in the fore-mentioned Johannine passage are powerful images that can shake anyone to the core of his being when properly understood.

In the first reading, God, who is steadfast in opposing idolatry throughout the Old Testament, inexplicably asked Moses to make an idol for his people – a bronze serpent. If this is not strange enough, His next instruction to Moses simply bordered on insanity: Get the Israelites to look at the bronze serpent, mounted high on a pole, as though it were an idol to be worshipped! God being God, He had it His way. Moses did exactly what he was told. But then again, God being God, He was able to heal everyone who got bitten by the serpents! Still, even though God can do anything He wants, a sensible reader will surely want to know: Why did God go against His own commandment and instruct Moses and his people to practise idolatry?

The way the Bible works, the real meaning of an Old Testament passage that seems so difficult to understand is usually revealed in the New Testament. As St. Augustine says so succinctly, “The New Testament is hidden in the Old, and the Old Testament revealed in the New.” In the gospel reading, Jesus perfects the techniques of biblical exegesis and explains that the bronze serpent that Moses lifted up in the desert is actually an image or a personification, if you will, pointing towards him personally. Like the bronze serpent that looked poisonous and yet was the cure for those suffering from poisonous wounds, Jesus, who looked like a convicted criminal on the Cross is in fact the cure for those suffering from sins; like the bronze serpent that was lifted up high on a pole, Jesus must be lifted up high on the Cross; like the serpent-bitten people who looked at the mounted serpent and got healed, the sin-wounded people who turn their gaze to the crucified Christ will be saved.

The imagery at work in the Mass readings of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is not only powerful, it is also a good demonstration of why images cannot be seen as identical to “idols” – an error often made by many separated brethren of the reformed churches.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Edmond, for your explanation. In fact, when we live in a convenient darkness, unaware of our sins we will never make spiritual progress. So we need the "Light", whatever painful that is. But then, once that light is revealed what's the matter, then we can begin to rise. On the Cross of Jesus, we meet our own sins, but we also meet our Divine Mercy, which is taking that sin upon him in order to swallow it up! We want to hold up the Cross which is considerably too horrible to look at. At the same time, we want to embrace the source of our pain because that's the way to life.