Introduction: In Greek mythology, the rod of Asclepius is a serpent-entwined rod wielded by Greek god Asclepius, a deity associated with healing and medicine. In modern times the symbol has continued to be used as the symbol of the medical profession. The significance of the serpent has been interpreted in various ways; sometimes the shedding of the skin as symbolizing rejuvenation while others see the serpent as a symbol that unites the dual nature of the work of physicians; life and death, sickness and health. The ambiguity of the serpent as a symbol and the contradictions it is thought to represent and reflect the ambiguity of the use of drugs which can help or harm (drugs as in medicine and drugs as in addiction). Even the ancient meaning of the term “pharmacon” has that ambiguity attached to it; it can be medicinal or poisonous at the same time. Products from bodies of snakes have some medicinal properties and can be prescribed as therapy just as venom can be fatal if it enters the bloodstream.
Gospel: Today’s gospel from John is Jesus’ encounter with a pharisee in Nicodemus. Jesus immediately connects the lifting up of the Son of Man with the story of Moses raising up the serpent in Num. 21. The bronze serpent saves those who look on it after having been bitten by a poisonous serpent; Jesus likewise saves human beings by virtue of being lifted up. Being lifted up refers to the human act of crucifying Jesus. The serpent which caused the death of many became also the source of life for those who believe. To the unbelievers, the cross is foolishness to the Greeks as it is humiliation for the Jews. With the eyes of faith, it is the cause of our salvation. The gospel reminds us of the life giving serpent to demonstrate to us that the cross is the sign not of suffering, not defeat, not humiliation but the depth and breadth of God’s unconditional love. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life.” Try gazing at the cross and linger for a while. Imagine Jesus on the cross. With all the taunting and insults being heaped upon his person, when all the possible cruelty was being thrown at him. Jesus took all of them not in stoic indifference, neither by revengeful spirit but by dignified silence and royal acceptance. He does not elicit sympathy nor exhibit anger. There is serenity and inner strength that can come only from a heart in full communion with a compassionate God. Hang on the cross he has nothing but words of forgiveness, and nothing else. There is something beyond human capacity not only to endure but to exude graciousness in the midst of pain and isolation. In the cross Jesus reveals fully his divinity. God as love reaches its apex when he freely lays down his life to ransom us from death.
If the cross is the fullness of God’s revelation as love, the cross is also symbolic of our refusal to obey God’s command of loving others through self-denial. We refuse to carry our own crosses. It is a chilling reminder of our selfishness, therefore our sinfulness, our rebellion against the will of God. It is humanity’s sin that nailed Jesus on the cross. We likewise continue to nail other people on the cross as we aggressively pursue our selfish interests. The cross reminds us that we have not really loved enough; that we have not really loved like God, ever willing to take the pain that love entails, willing to sacrifice for the sake of the beloved.
This season we are not only reflecting on who Jesus was, the Jesus of history, but who Jesus is, the Jesus of mystery. Jesus at this very moment across the universe.Jesus deep in the hearts if believers. Today we are invited to see the cross being replayed a thousand times in the lives of the outcasts, the marginalized and the excluded, all because the self is the overriding value in our lives…are we timidly silent, nonchalantly watching from the sidelines as we witness suffering being perpetuated by unjust structures and vested interests of the few? The gruesome truth of the crucifixion of Jesus is well known in history. Most evil in the world is done by people thinking they are doing good and doing their best. Today the cross is being reenacted in he stomachs of the children swollen by hunger, in the faces, not so much by soldier combatants in wars, but in the faces of the women and children torn in those war zones, in the indigenous peoples displaced by excessive exploitation of their ancestral lands, in the informal settlers whose makeshift dwellings were demolished by unscrupulous developers, in the underpaid workers and the thousands of able unemployed. To them Jesus of mystery is continuously being crucified because of our love of self.
Brothers and sisters, the cross is not an amulet to ward off evil spirits, not as a sign of resignation to suffering as part of God’s plan, not a mysterious object that can be relied upon in moments of danger. The cross is a sign of our willingness to die to self that others may live.