All fairy stories need a villain – and the snake is as good a villain as any. I remember a memorable dinner party at a former colleague’s house in which a series of terrariums populated by large snakes stood against the walls of the dining room. For someone who grew up in a country where there are no snakes – being surrounded by them contributed to a particularly disconcerting dinner party.
It’s worth noting – before we dismiss the serpent as the all-time villain in our seminal religious history – an incident recorded in the 21st chapter of the book of Numbers. After a serious serpent infestation of the Israelite camp resulting in many deaths from snake venom, Moses instructed the Levites to cast a bronze image of the serpent and raise it up over the camp so that whoever looked upon it was cured.
We can puzzle over how this incident escaped the Second Commandment’s prohibition against the fashioning of graven idols? It seems that bronze serpents are a curious exception to the Golden Calf rule. Yet, what’s interesting about the story in Numbers is that it’s the first depiction of the homeopathic principle – that the toxin is also the antidote.
Some ideas have a universal resonance in human consciousness and it seems the serpents or snakes are a case in point. The Rod of Asclepius – a stave with a single serpent coiled around it became the symbol of healing among the Ancient Greeks. Do you think they had read Numbers 21? The Rod of Asclepius became the symbol of healing in modern medicine and in the United States where two is always better than one – the Caduceus – the double headed serpent stave – was officially adopted as the symbol of the Army Medical Core in 1902.
The OT reading on the first Sunday in Lent records the fateful incident of the woman, the snake, and the apple in the garden. Just as God’s plan for creation seemed to be right on course the incident of the woman, the snake, and the apple in the garden seriously derailed things. This unfortunate incident subsequently came to be known as The Fall.
The reasoning goes that through the gross disobedience of eating the fruit from the only tree God had forbidden them to eat of – Eve and her hapless husband Adam, fell from a state of original grace into the state of original sin.
The Apostle Paul was at pains to map out the history of sin from Adam to Christ in his epistle to the Romans – our second reading for Lent 1. He maps out the notion of felix culpa – felicitous or happy sin. Happy in the sense that universal salvation through Christ became its ultimate consequence. Following Paul, Augustine chose to place the emphasis on the sin side of the sin-redemption equation – thus creating a doctrine of original sin – transgenerational sin from which no human being could ever escape being born into.
It’s curious that upon receiving the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve’s first discovery was shame at their realization of nakedness. For Augustine, this was proof enough of sex as the means of intergenerational transmission of an unalterable genetic fault.
As Anglicans, Episcopalians don’t pay much mind to the doctrine of Original Sin – good news to those of you raised in either Roman Catholic or Calvinist traditions. Although Archbishop Cranmer included the doctrine in article 9 in the 39 Articles of Religion – given the times how could he have not done so – the direction of Anglican theology has been to place the emphasis on redemption through grace and not on the sin of Eve and by extension, her hapless husband. Anglican Tradition recognizes the necessary tension between the influences of sin, and freedom of choice. That we are subjected from birth (and not before) to sin’s influence is a matter of environmental nurture not intrinsic nature. Our human vulnerability to self-centeredness restricts and distorts our exercise free will – requiring us to look to God for our ultimate hope and salvation.
Matthew picks up this theme in his depiction of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Following Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan, Matthew tells us that- Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness – there to be tempted by Satan.
Satan – that ancient Serpent appears again – taking us back to the incident of the woman, the snake, and the apple – but this time, note not in the garden, but in the wilderness. Since the fall the gates to the Garden have been firmly shut – consigning humanity to an exile of toil and suffering in the wilderness.
Satan tempts Jesus with a series of metaphorical apples – everyone the promise of omnipotent power that flows from possessing the knowledge of good and evil. However, unlike the spiritually adolescent Eve, Jesus has the spiritual maturity to see through the Serpent’s ruse.
An important re-reading of the incident of the woman, the snake, and the apple in the garden reveals God’s prohibition against eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – is not as some have conjectured – a divine desire to keep Adam and Eve in a state of infantile immaturity but the safeguard of parental protection. In the process of their creation, God imbued Adam and Eve with freedom of choice. To understand this seeming paradox, we need to view the incident through the lens of parental guidance.
The skillful and loving parent leads the child to an eventual state of full independence by protecting the child from being exposed to making certain choices – before they are fully mature enough to understand them. One of the signs of that maturity is to understand the consequences of the decisions we make.
Today, multiple, and shocking survey evidence is revealing to us the damaging consequences for our adolescent and young adults of being exposed to choices – the consequences of which they have neither the full cognitive development nor emotional maturity to understand. We are beginning to wake up to the pernicious effects of social networking in prematurely exposing our young to a knowledge of good and evil which they are not yet ready to handle. The result is an epidemic of youth depression, social bullying, and suicide.
Jesus enters the wilderness to face the temptation of being presented with the illusion of omnipotent freedom of choice. Unlike Eve and her hapless husband, Adam, both still at the stage of adolescent omnipotence – Jesus is a fully mature human being with wisdom and foresight beyond his chronological years. He sees through Satan’s allurements to affirm his rootedness in the wisdom of God.
Last week I ended my reflection with coming down from the mountain of transfiguration into the rocky and barren terrain of the lent of our lives. The wilderness not a place – it’s a metaphor for a particular lens that reveals sinfulness at the heart of everyday life. Through the wilderness lens we come to see more clearly how sin – when not openly acknowledged -restricts and distorts the actual freedom of our moral choices. Sin, like the serpent’s venomous bite acts like a toxin at the center of our daily lives. If sin is the toxin, then repentance is the antidote.
The Prayer Book invites us to contemplate keeping a Holy Lent through practices that trigger self-awareness – bringing us to a fuller appreciation of how sin distorts the quality of our choices.
- Self-examination and repentance reconnect us with our sadness and sorrow, our hatred and anger, our refusal to acknowledge our selfishness and greed. Self-examination and repentance- makes us more sensitive to, and mindful of, the way we speak to and about others. Self-examination and repentance remodulate our internal voices of judgement and criticism – esp. the pernicious self-criticisms which feed the hardening of our hearts.
- Fasting and self-denial introduce elements of physical and emotional discomfort that trigger a more conscious sense of the food we eat and how we eat it. Food here can be a metaphor for all our cravings. We deny ourselves something and the experience of frustration – the mildest deprivation – makes us mindful of our normal patterns of over consumption and waste – our collusion with social inequalities of access and distribution and our despoiling of the natural world. Through self-denial we are reconnected to an experience of a bountiful God who requires us to preserve and not just consume.
- Through worship, prayer, and study – through the cultivation of habitual recollection (every moment mindfulness) – we retune to the presence and goodness of our Creator in the human and natural world around us. In so doing we rediscover the sources of gratitude that bring us the pleasure and fulfilment only found in generous living.
In the temptation in the wilderness Jesus shows us what humanity – mindful of our relationship with God, is capable of. Let’s keep this realization front of mind as we embark on the journey through the lent of our lives – only to arrive prepared and ready for the great celebration of Easter.