By Giuseppe Gagliano
The Bible contains the most primordial elements of the human condition. Over and over, we see moments where the outer garbs of human action are stripped away and what remains is a deeply embedded principle that has governed our action in the world, perhaps without us even knowing it. In other words, the Scriptures reveal to us the bare bones of human nature. And such are the scripture readings before us today.
As the children of Israel were wandering in the desert, they were overwhelmed by poisonous snakes. And as they did time and time again, they repented and turned to their leader Moses so that he would intercede with God on their behalf.
God told Moses to fashion a serpent of bronze and to set it upon a pole. As each Israelite looked upon this serpent, they were healed of their ailment.
Here, we have such a complex and powerful symbol. It was a serpent that caused the illness. And yet God did not tell Moses to fashion a weapon to drive out the snakes, or some sort of serpentine trap. Instead, he created an image of that very poisoner. The cure to the Israelites was in the form of the disease. And in order to be cured, they had to look upon it and live.
This, I believe, is one of the most beautiful and mysterious premonitions of Jesus Christ in the Old Testament. Humanity for centuries has been ravaged by the fallenness of our humanness: greed, war, ruthlessness, destruction, and all manner of unspeakable sins. Then we pleaded with God to send us a Saviour. That Saviour came in the same form as our very disease, bearing our humanness exactly as we are. Then, just as that serpent in the wilderness, he was lifted high upon a pole for the healing of the nations. And those who seek to look at him will live.
This is the mystery. Jesus is the cure in the form of the disease. Christ said to Nicodemus, “And 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.” I often think about the fact that God could have chosen all manner of ways to bring us salvation. After all, throughout the Scriptures, he sent the patriarchs and prophets and kings and seers, but humanity did not listen. The only-begotten Son was the only lasting cure.
In a sense, we see played out the fact that our faith is based on paradoxical ideas. Death is cured by a death. The last shall be first, and the first shall be last. The meek shall inherit the earth. Strength is found in weakness. And like other paradoxes of the faith, this one flies in the face of common wisdom. The disease, we might cry, cannot be the cure! That is silly and makes little sense. But so often the truth is hidden in the realm of paradox.
So what does it mean that the Israelites looked upon the serpent and lived? I believe that this is the key to the matter. In order to be cured by this paradoxical medicine, the poisoned person has to gaze upon that very source of the ailment. If they do not look upon it, the medicine has no effect.
I believe we are also called to gaze upon Jesus Christ as the perfect medicine. But that gaze is one of an entire lifetime, and one where we try to see deeper and deeper into the mystery of his universal cure. To look upon Christ requires that we see more deeply into the wonders of God, of course, but also into the darkness of our own nature.
In the Gospel reading, Christ speaks about darkness and light. Those who come to him in repentance are saved because the darkness is brought to light. “Those who do what is true come to the light,” he says. It is in coming to Christ that sins are exposed, but in that same act they are also dissolved. The key is thus not to cover up the darkness, but to bring it to the light of Christ. The cure is not found in looking away from the cross, but gazing directly at it.
During the season of Lent, Christ has invited us to carry our own cross. Even just a few weeks ago, we heard the call to forsake ourselves, take up the cross, and follow him. There is a wonderful line from Friedrich Nietzsche (not known for being a Christian philosopher!): “If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” When we look upon Jesus for our cure—to that one hanging upon the Cross in the substance of our mortal nature—there comes the time when we, too, take up that cross. We gaze into the abyss of the cross, and in so doing take up the cross of our redemption.
In a sense, I believe that is exactly what Lent is. It is a time that we set aside to gaze into the abyss. We use this season to reflect on death, which is unsavory to say the least, and yet it is the truthful exercise gazing into an inevitability. People often feel badly because they cannot live up to their fasts, or that they have more sins than they can name. But that sort of realization is exactly the product of a truly reflective soul. It is those who claim that they do not sin who deceive themselves, and the truth is not in them.
So, I invite you to gaze into the cross. Look at the universal cure, fashioned in the form of a particular person. See within him yourself, your neighbour, and all of humanity. And then let the abyss gaze back into you: see within yourself, your neighbour, and all of humanity that one Jesus Christ, the universal medicine and cure for sin and death. Look to the Cross of Jesus so that you may take up your cross and follow where he leads.
The Rev. Canon Guiseppe Gagliano is canon for lay ministries of the Anglican Diocese of Quebec and a member of the clergy team of the St. Francis Deanery, Eastern Townships, Quebec.