Thinking Anew – ‘The brazen serpent’

What is the significance of a snake entwined on a stick sometimes seen on ambulances? The answer has to be something to do with health, given that the same symbol forms part of the logo of the World Health Organisation.

The stick is the asklepian, or rod of Asclepius, the god of medicine in ancient Greek religion and mythology. The snake represented rejuvenation because snakes shed and replace their skin; snakebites were also believed in the past to have healing properties.

In ancient times there was quite a cult founded on these beliefs with designated temples, one of which was located on the island of Kos, where Hippocrates, the legendary “father” of medicine, may have begun his career. The original Hippocratic Oath began with the invocation “I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius ...”. The snake-entwined staff, remains a symbol of medicine today.

There is a possible echo of this in tomorrow’s readings. The Old Testament passage from the Book Numbers tells how the Children of Israel rebelled against God and Moses because of conditions in the wilderness: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food?”

Their circumstances are worsened by a plague of serpents, divine punishment it seems for their rebellion. They plead for relief and Moses is told by God to “make a poisonous serpent and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live”, a striking similarity with the cult of Asclepius.

Centuries later King Hezekiah enacted sweeping religious reforms, including a prohibition on venerating other deities within the Temple of Jerusalem.

At this time, “the brazen serpent that Moses had made” was ordered to be destroyed because it had become an object of superstition, an idol, that came between the people and God. This aversion to idols found expression in the turbulent events of the Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries when there was widespread desecration of religious buildings and artworks by puritan zealots and many treasures were lost.

An example of this can be seen in the great west window of Winchester Cathedral, which is made up of fragments of medieval glass put together randomly, in mosaic form. The original panes were deliberately destroyed by Cromwell’s forces in 1642 but after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the broken glass was gathered up and used again but it was impossible to reconstruct the original scenes or a scene of any kind as the damage was so great.

Such wanton destruction was a reaction, albeit an extreme one, to the superstition and corruption that existed throughout the mediaeval church at that time. Martin Luther said: “Idolatry is not only the adoration of images . . . but also trust in one’s own righteousness, works and merits, and putting confidence in riches and power”.

The bronze serpent, banned by Hezekiah, is temporarily reinstated in tomorrow’s gospel reading when Jesus links it to his death on the cross. “And just 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.” Just as the feared serpent in the hands of divinely inspired Moses becomes a source of healing and deliverance so the cross of Jesus, an instrument of torture and death, becomes a symbol of hope and new life.

In his Prayers of Life, Michel Quoist reminds us that aids to worship are not there simply to be admired but are intended to draw us more actively into the service of God.

He uses the Stations of the Cross as an example: “The Way of the Cross winds through our towns, our hospitals and factories, and through our battlefields; it takes the road of poverty and suffering in every form. It is in front of these new Stations of the Cross that we must stop and meditate and pray to the suffering Christ for strength to love him enough to act.”