The Fourth Sunday in Lent
When I was a child, I had nightmares, bad dreams where I was chased by the Big, Bad Elephant. I do not, now, remember very much of these dreams, but when they were happening, I must have told my parents about the terror I saw in my sleep. They bought for me a stuffed toy I still have - a dark grey elephant my toddler self promptly christened “Dumbo”. My parents told me, and I trusted, that if the Big, Bad Elephant hunted me in my dreams, I needed to look to Dumbo and I would be protected. The totem worked, and the dreams stopped having the power to terrify me.
On Sunday, we will hear an interesting story about the Israelites as they were wandering and muttering in the desert. In their complaints, they grumbled once too many times against God directly, and, in the course of the storytelling, poisonous “fiery” snakes invaded the camp and attacked the people. God’s command to Moses was to make a totem of a snake, lifted high on a pole, and any who looked upon the bronze snake after being bitten would not die, but live. That which brought terror to the people used instead as a salvific agent.
Naturally, the image of the snake twisted around a pole and lifted high before the people in need of healing and saving brought two images to mind - the current symbol of the medical profession: a serpent wrapped around the staff of Asclepius, and Jesus lifted high on the cross. Like the slithering snakes heralds of death raised up on the pole, when we arrive at Good Friday, one phrase we say when Jesus is crucified, is we see death lifted up on the cross. Yet the beauty of the message is one of healing and hope, passing through pain and suffering for life.
We are lucky. We don’t need to experience the poison of a snake bite, or the crush of nails in order to earn life. In fact, the only thing we can do is look upon that which terrifies us - giant angry elephants, fiery snakes, death - and trust that God will be with us. And then, in grateful appreciation of God’s presence and grace, help our neighbors, our loved ones, and the stranger in our midst, wherever that midst may be.
As for that frightened toddler, so scared of elephants, I now love the gentle giants.