SNAKES OF LIFE (John 3:14-21)
Influenced by cultural beliefs and perhaps by experiences of being bitten, many people dislike snakes, fear them even. Snakes are associated with mythological Medusa or Valentina who had disgusting snakes for hair on their heads. For many people snakes have come to be symbols of evil, of temptation, and reminder of “man’s fall from grace” in the garden of Eden. Today we call traditional politicians, human rights violators, traitors snakes. Pity the snakes!
In some old cultures snakes were worshiped. For the Aztecs and some tribes of Africa and India, it was a heinous crime punishable by death to kill snakes. For them snakes symbolized Life because they spring from Mother Earth, the giver of life. The snake/Life protects or harms depending on how it/Life is honored. They got that right! Today, two snakes coiled around a staff is a medical symbol of healing and life, reminding all that medicine was discovered in ancient Greecewhen one Aesculapius saw a snake applying herbs to heal the wounds of a fellow snake.
In the Old Testament God rehabilitated the snake as a symbol of life (Num. 21:8ff). When the Israelites spoke against God and Moses in the desert, and made it clear that they preferred Egypt that had exploited and oppressed them, God sent venomous snakes to bite the people. Many got sick; many died. When the people regained their senses and repented, the Lord said to Moses: “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” And so a bronze snake, life from Mother Earth, was put up. Life was restored to the Israelites. God’s message was: “Prefer life, even if it be in the desert, over death disguised as life in Egypt!”
Later the Israelites forgot God who cured them, and adored bronze snakes instead. The priests destroyed the graven images of snakes. But when the people felt God had abandoned them, they simply shifted allegiance to other idols worse than snakes.
So that people would honor life and not make the mistake of attributing life to snakes, idols, science, state power, industrial and financial superpowers, or to themselves, Jesus asserts himself as the giver of life, nay, as Life itself. “I am the Way, and the Truth and the Life”, he says. (Jn. 14:6) For spiritual and even physical healing, of themselves and their institutions, people are to look to Jesus and be born again. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that every one who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn. 3:14) The snake as symbol has been replaced by the reality of Life itself. People are to prefer life in all its forms to death in all its forms, specially illusions of life.
The most important thing in life is Life itself. And in the logic of faith, if Jesus is theLife, then he is and should be the most important being in life. We are invited to be one with him – to be born again of water and the Spirit to have life here and in the hereafter! (Jn. 3:5); and to let his humanity and divinity coil around us that we too may be symbols of life like a caduceus. All are called to be born again into the life of Jesus. What does this mean?
What is to have life in Jesus? It is to be born into his mode of thinking and have the life of his mind beyond mind (“metanoite,” he said), appreciative of all creation, appreciative of the world of neighbor, appreciative of the knowledge of the Father and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit; appreciative of the ways of sin and grace.
One must be born again into the truth of Jesus. And this means rejecting the lie that life is absurd; that I am not loved; that the past hopelessly repeats itself with its injustice and sufferings; that there is no future, and that history ends with capitalism; that a globalized capitalist world is the paradise-end of history. The truth is that God has declared all life good; that he so loved the world that he sent his only begotten so not to condemn but to save it; that in the desert of my loneliness and absurdity his word is manna and light; that in the deserts of exploitation and oppression, of martial rule and states of national emergency, snakes of life are lifted up all over the world: the snakes of progressive people’s movements and organizations, renewed democratic local communities and churches for healing, inspiration, and replication; that the past opens to a future of a new heaven and a new earth in time; that with us with God all is possible.
One must have life in the way of Jesus. This is the way of his ministry: to proclaim the good news to people, institutions, and all creation, and to heal these if they are spiritually or physically sick. It is ministry in our respective ways and stations of life to “preach good news to the poor… to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Lk. 4:18-19) It is the way of struggle for justice and peace; for salvation and liberation. It is the way of the cross, but one that leads to resurrection.
Being born again into Jesus is sharing his Being-with-the-Father. Jesus prayed: “... that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” (Jn. 17:21) As sure as God is God, his prayer will be granted; is being granted. We share his being by being in his grace, in his word, in his love and in his love of God and neighbor. We share his being in prayer with him, in him and through him, in union with the Holy Spirit.
And so Jesus is lifted up like the snake of life of old. He looks down on us in love and mercy, and draws us to himself -- that we might have life and have it abundantly. But we must be at the foot of the cross. Else, we miss the gift of Life, or it misses us.
Choose Life! (Deut. 30:19) #
Rev. Fr. Francisco R. Albano
Diocese of Ilagan