Serpents & Crucifixes

by Fr. Mark Kurowski | MySpiritualAdvisor2020

#SerpentsAndCrucifixes is the podcast for March 8, 2020. What is the purpose of a Crucifix and why do we cross ourselves?  Listen here FREE and find out more: Download it into your phone. #John3 #Nicodemus #Numbers21 #Serpent #Crucifix #Night #BornAnew #Baptism

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For listener supported My Spiritual Advisor, this is Fr. Mark Kurowski with a reflection for Sunday,   3/8/2020  The 2nd   Sunday of Lent. 

 Please pause this audio and read John 3:1-17. 

Did you ever wonder why it is that we have crucifixes in our churches? It seems grotesque doesn’t it? To have the body of our Lord hanging bloody, beaten, traumatized unto death as the symbol of our faith hanging prominently in our churches seems defeating.  Well, the answer to why we look at, admire, venerate on Good Friday, and are touched to the soul by crucifixes in our churches is found in the Book of Numbers, chapter 21. 

We call it “The Book of Numbers”, but in Hebrew Bibles it is referred to as “In the wilderness.” Numbers is all the stuff that happens between when the Hebrew people, our mothers and fathers, came through the Red Sea and when they take possession of the land of Canaan. It has everything from inspiration to creepy in it. Chapter 21 has the people who were delivered through the Red Sea and wandering in a desert complaining about God’s menu. It seems that some of them have taken to Yelp or Google Review and have begun to complain fiercely about the menu in the desert under Moses. 

Some of the comments from the just-delivered-from-slavery-by-a-mighty-act-of-God Hebrews include the following: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” In other words, “We want to go back to being slaves because the food was better.” Or, this: “For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Do you mean you loathe the “no food” about which you are complaining? Heretofore we are witnessing the Hebrew people being ungrateful for being delivered from slavery and ungrateful for having food given to them in the desert. In fact, they are complaining because there are few options on the menu in the barren desert. 

So, the Lord sent “fiery serpents among the people and they were bit.” It is when the people get snakes instead of bread that they all of a sudden go: we appreciate the food, thank you. To this, they run to Moses and confess their ingratitude and ask Moses to ask God to fix all this.  So, Moses appeals to God and the Lord has him make a bronze serpent for the people to look up at the serpent when they are bit. If they look at the serpent when they are bit, they will live. 

Huh? Why would God have them do that? 

I can think of a couple of reasons. First, it is homeopathic.  Homeopathic medicine treats the whole person at the root of the problem.  The bronze snake does not have medicinal value. It does not heal anything. Looking at the bronze snake is homeopathic because it reminds the people what God has done. It took fiery serpents being let loose in the camp for them to remember what God has provided. He did not give them a menu of French cuisine, but he gave them what they needed to survive in the desert until they were in the promised land. 

Secondly, homeopathic medicine takes what is already there and uses it to treat the disease. One of the best examples I can think of is the measles vaccine.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, in the decade prior to the introduction to the vaccine in 1963, “each year, among reported cases, an estimated 400 to 500 people died, 48,000 were hospitalized, and 1,000 suffered encephalitis (swelling of the brain) from measles,” in the United States alone. By the year 2000, the United States eliminated measles. This means there was not a case of measles in the U.S. for a 12 month period.  How did they do it? 

All vaccines use weakened versions of the disease. They inject this weakened version of the disease into our bodies. Our immune system builds antibodies that fight against the disease period, weakened or otherwise, and our bodies remember. Those anti-bodies in our system then fight any reoccurrence of that disease. We are said to be “immune.” 

So, just like the weakened disease in our bodies builds up anti-bodies against the disease as a whole, looking at the inanimate bronze serpent in the desert reminds the people that the Lord has saved them and given them food in their freedom and the Lord heals them from the snake bite. He is the one they should love and believe in. The serpent is the thing that keeps their faith ever before them. 

We have crucifixes in our churches for the same reason.  “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 Cross upon which the Lord hung is a sign of the sacrifice which God from God, true God from true God made for us to himself to free us from our sins. His death paid the price. He is human so he offers himself for all humanity. He is divine so he offers a permanent eternal offering for sin. He is the God-man, so he removes whatever barrier there was between us and God. They reminder of the act of Salvation on Calvary for us is the Crucifix.   

When we lift it up and look at it, we are reminded by faith for faith who Jesus is and what he did. Our entry into heaven through Baptism depends upon us accepting how he has joined us to himself. We must accept that our salvation is because we have been grafted into the one who died on the Cross and rose from the dead. The symbol may be the tomb, but the reminder of the action that saved humanity is the Crucifix.  

We do not believe that the crucifix has power. We believe that the act done on the Cross has the power. The Crucifix is just like the serpent in the desert that reminds us when we look at it.  We will then cross ourselves with the sign of the Cross, appropriating all that was done upon the Cross. That is right, when we make the sign of the Cross on ourselves, we are placing ourselves under the work of Jesus upon the Cross, by faith for faith. 

This kind of stuff can be hard for us people who were raised under the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is the philosophic period which gave us the amazing scientific method which revolutionized the world.  Yet, the Enlightenment also limited what we believe.  It limited it to what we could see, smell, hear, taste and touch. Even the hearing and seeing have to be doubted at times under the Enlightenment.  It is the Enlightenment philosophy that caused Thomas Jefferson to take the Gospels and cut out all of the miracles and leave only the sayings of Jesus. Jefferson did not believe in the miracles because he was an “Enlightened man”.   

The mystical connection between the serpent and healing, the Cross and salvation, is not part of being Enlightened.   Protestantism and protestant thought is based in the skepticism of the mystical reality of God: that with God all things are possible, even those things which we cannot see, smell, hear, taste, or touch. Even those things which are not repeatable by the scientific method. 

It is much like this encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. Here we have a Pharisee coming to Jesus to get clarification. Pharisees are concerned with the externals: long robes, places of honor at the table, long phylacteries, washing of the cups, greetings in the marketplace. This preoccupation with the outside materiality of things keeps him and the Pharisees from understanding the inner truths of realities.  Much like the Hebrews who were in the desert, and we who busy ourselves with our daily first world lives, the Pharisees want to know what Jesus is up to. He said, “We know…” meaning the Sanhedrin, the ruling group of the Pharisees. 

The Pharisees and a seeker of truth among them, like Nicodemus, is perfect for St. John and his Gospel.  The whole Gospel of John is written on two levels. The material reality is a sign of something spiritual. They are combined and inextricable from each other. The Enlightenment wants to separate physical and spiritual. In St. John’s Gospel, all things that we do have a spiritual AND physical reality. Sin has a spiritual AND physical reality called death. Baptism has a physical AND spiritual reality called new birth.  Confession has a physical AND spiritual reality in the speaking. The Eucharist has a physical AND spiritual reality in the body and blood. Anointing oil has a physical AND spiritual reality in the oil and prayer. Marriage has a spiritual AND physical reality in the children. Ordination has a spiritual AND physical reality in the orders of ministry.  All of these things find their basis in this underlying reality that what we do with our bodies, we do with our souls. Just like the Son and Mary combine to become the hypostatic union in Jesus, so our reality and the spiritual reality are tied together. 

It seems that a leader of a community that looked up to the serpent in the desert and follows a God who is Spirit would know that this is reality. Yet, Nicodemus symbolically comes to Jesus at night at a time when he cannot not only not see his footsteps, but he cannot see the connection between Jesus and God.  That is when Jesus says to him, “You must be born from above.” So much ink has been spilt about what this means. I can tell you that from my research of the Church Fathers, from 100 A.D. starting with St. Justin Martyr up to Martin Luther and the Enlightenment, there was no question that Jesus was talking about those who had been Baptized To them, being baptized was to be born again.  This is why when Jesus leaves Nicodemus, he and his disciples begin to Baptize. Check it out in 3:22. 

It is a spiritual and physical connection that the holy man Nicodemus cannot get to because he is so connected to the externalities of reality.  What is required is an awakening within, a rebirth that comes with faith and baptism. The faith comes from us and Baptism has the Spirit within. I think we need Pixar to help us. 

In the movie “The Polar Express,” the Conductor, voiced by Tom Hanks says to the boy who is experience doubt, “Seeing is not believing. Believing is seeing.” For us to see, we must believe that Jesus Christ, God, is our first priority. His word is what we believe and through it we see the world.  If we believe that God is the one through whom all things find their meaning, then it makes sense what Jesus has come to do. It makes sense that he is healing all these people, changing water into wine, and then is going to go out and Baptize. Even more, it makes sense that the Cross upon which hangs our Salvation is the defining key of “God so love the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever shall believe in him would have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”  

This loving act of sacrifice is what gives meaning to the Crucifix which hangs in our churches and around our necks. When we look at them we will be saved, as our mothers and fathers were saved by looking at the serpents, as an appeal to have God first in our lives. The Crucifixion is what gives meaning to when we make the sign of the Cross on our bodies, placing ourselves spiritually under the effects of the sacrifice upon the Cross as we place ourselves under the physical action of touching our head, our heart, and embracing our whole body. 

All of these things are reminders to us spiritually AND physically that we ought to have no other gods but the one who led our people out of slavery in Egypt and led us out of slavery to sin. Amen. 

This audio is under the copyright of My Spiritual Advisor, Incorporated and may not be used, reduplicated, or distributed for commercial use without the express written consent of My Spiritual Advisor, IncorporatedMy Spiritual Advisor, Incorporated, 2020

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Mark Kurowski, M.Div.

Mark Kurowski, M.Div.

Executive Director

Spiritual Director, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Theologian