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A Bronze Serpent Processional Cross

Yes, that’s a snake. A bronze serpent, actually — you know the story — set aloft on steel, which serves as the new Lenten processional cross for my parish. We commissioned the work from a local blacksmith artist, Evan Wilson, who makes sculptures out of steel and other metals that I did not know was possible — including abstract interpretations of Caravaggio paintings, a crucified Christ floating in baptismal waters, and birds so realistic they look like they might fly away. His work is worth knowing.

And yes, part of the point of our cross is that you might recoil in horror or disbelief upon first seeing it, because surely that was part of the point for the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness getting bit and killed by snakes. What else were they supposed to think, lying there in fiery pain, when Moses came around the corner with a snake held up on a pole, saying, “Everybody, look!”

What is a snake in this immediate context but the very last thing you want to see? And what is a snake in the bigger story of the people of God up to this point but a symbol of sin (Eden) and idolatry (Egypt)? As if God has given up on Israel’s capacity to interpret his subtle hints, God is now saying the quiet part out loud: The spiritual consequences of your sin have now taken on material form. If you’re going to choose the way of the snake, then I will send you snakes.

But God telling Moses to cast a serpent in bronze and set it on a pole makes it look like God is telling Moses to rub a dog’s face in its mess. The Hebrew word for pole comes from the word used for standard, as in battle standard. And so the symbolic reading of the story appears obvious: What unites these people? What is their calling card? God? No. Their sin. The story makes no sense because the opposite is happening: they are being healed by looking at this reminder of their sin.

What is the cross of Jesus if not something upon which you would — and should! — recoil in horror and disbelief upon seeing for the first time? God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, this unalloyed presence of holiness and love, and we couldn’t handle it. Humanity had an allergic reaction to God’s love. We rebelled so intensely that we decided to kill the best thing that’s ever happened to us. Good Friday is, pure and simple, the worst thing humanity has ever done. But the irony of the bronze serpent is the same irony as the cross of Christ. That which only reminds us of our disobedience becomes the means of our healing. That which is the symbol of us at our worst becomes the instrument of our salvation. That which is hard to look at becomes our saving grace. The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. God uses precisely the worst thing we have ever done as a means of saving us.

God much more understandably could have treated the cross as the last straw. The incarnation was God’s epically romantic gesture of love, and we threw it in the trash. God could have raged. God could have sent another flood or earthquake and wiped out the human race once and for all, but God simply can’t not love us. Such that now, on the other side of the resurrection, the cross of Christ has become, for Christians, not a symbol of our shame, but ironically, the ultimate symbol of our hope.

And that’s what the image of this processional cross tries to capture. It’s not just a bronze serpent on a pole after all. It’s a bronze serpent on a cross, a merging of the Old Testament story with the New. It plays on the mythological too, bringing tomind the Rod of Asclepius, that deity associated with healing and medicine; and indeed, something similar is being communicated here. The Greek word pharmakon means both poison and medicine. One must come close to what kills to find what heals. Others might see an echo of the Ouroboros, the serpent eating its own tail, that image of eternally repeating cycle of life and death.

And yet our cross is less ambiguous than Asceplius, more triumphant than the Ouroboros. Our serpent does not ascend a pole with a life and will of its own. It is not lying limp or crouching in preparation to strike. It is instead bent into the shape of a Celtic knot, forming a new kind of Celtic cross. It is sin and shame bent into something holy; a symbol of everything that has gone wrong now forced to obey the holy purposes of God. One’s healing is not left to the random prescriptions of Fate, but is certain and once for all. It is not a symbol of apathetic resignation, but one of perfect infinity, of paradise. A Celtic cross, notably, is not a cross; it is not an instrument or torture. It is decorated, embellished; it’s the kind of cross that can only exist after the resurrection, as is this one. This is the epicenter of our salvation: God taking something bad and turning it into something good.

This cross shows what God does with our sin and shame, not just in the big, cosmic, soteriological picture, but in the humdrum, everyday shape of our discipleship and sanctification as well. It’s turtles all the way down. Our sins, our varieties of idolatries, are not something that we often set aside time to look at. But that is precisely what the season of Lent is for, to look at that in ourselves which is hard to look at, which is why we wanted to use this cross specifically for the Lenten season. We are invited, as we prepare to celebrate the Paschal feast of Easter, to devote ourselves to disciplines of fasting and penitence. These are exercises of looking directly at the serpents in our lives, the snakes lurking in our hearts and imaginations.

This is hard work. But we believe, as Christians, that though it is hard, we ultimately have nothing to fear from it; that, in fact, the small shape of our spiritual disciplines mirrors the cosmic shape of our salvation, so that looking directly at our sins and shortcomings can become a source of healing and grace. This is what the sacrament of confession is for. You put your sins out into the open air before a priest, and in doing so, are led by their counsel into renewed wisdom. This is what therapy is for. This is what saying you’re sorry is for. This is what being a Christian is all about. This is the power of God: That through Christ, God can take any sin, any mistake, and through the cross, work it into my salvation. That through the church, by the Spirit, our sins and our shame can become gifts unto our sanctification. God can mold our mistakes into something holy, even beautiful.

The Rev. Zac Koons is rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas.


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