From Shame to Glory

This is a Sunday when I wish we did things the old way. It used to be in the Episcopal Church that we called the fourth Sunday in Lent, the halfway point, "Refreshment Sunday." We have vestiges of that tradition in the light pink altar hangings, which are a festive contrast to the unbleached linen of the rest of this season.

Refreshment Sunday always came with the story of the feeding of the five thousand, which is where its name came from. That story is all about abundance and provision and thus gave us a welcome break from the usual Lenten themes of abstaining and paring down.

I don’t know why this tradition was dropped, but I’m guessing this was to bring us in line with what other churches do on this day, which is (basically) to carry on with Lent. Episcopalians are great at finding the slightest excuse to break a fast and celebrate. :) I don’t think our ecumenical partners, though, found that amusing.

So here we are. And instead of a nice breezy Gospel story, we have readings that are among the hardest to decipher in the church year. I wasn’t at Bible study last Wednesday but I’m told by Mother Eliza, who led the group, that they took one look at these readings … and spent their hour talking about something else!


In the book of Numbers, the Israelites are in the desert between Egypt, which they left behind, and Canaan, which they’re journeying towards. The migration took 40 years. 40 years to travel just 482 miles, from the (then) city of Ramses to just over the Jordan. During this time the Israelites suffer setback after setback. They run out of food. The water is bitter and undrinkable. The route they planned, closed. Or was occupied by other people. Moses their leader turns on them. They turn on him. They come up against obstacles like the Red Sea, not to mention the vast and harsh desert they spend most of these years traversing. 

In our reading today, the Israelites face yet another disaster: they’re bitten by serpents, some fatally. They beg Moses their leader for help, and so he fashions for the people a bronze serpent on a pole and tells them to look at it, and they’ll be healed. 

Archaeologists (not long ago) unearthed in this area a bronze serpent on a pole like the one described here. It’s an ancient symbol, used by many civilizations long before Moses. We know it as the caduceus, or the Rod of Asclepius, from ancient Greece. Both are symbols of healing. Before that the Mesopotamians and Canaanites had a version. 

In other words, Moses didn’t make this up; he found it locally or brought it with him from Egypt. That’s what religions do: we take bits and pieces from all the places in the world we’ve settled. No religion is pure of outside influence; that’s the beauty of it. 

The Israelites kept this serpent with them for many centuries, even putting one in the Temple in Jerusalem once they were finally settled in the land. Today, if you go to Mt. Nebo where Moses died, just before entering the Holy Land, there’s a sculpture of this bronze serpent right there. 

This would all be distant history to us were it not for the fact that the early Christians saw in this odd, somewhat obscure, story a key to understanding the Cross.

The cross wasn’t a symbol for the earliest Christians. That would be the fish. On houses or graves the fish would indicate to other followers of Christ, the fisher of men, that the person here is (or was) a Christian. The cross, it took them a while to know what to do with. It was a symbol of what had gone wrong: their leader had been crucified, and crosses were used for criminals. They were shorthand for a horrible, demeaning ordeal. There’s even ancient Roman graffiti where the writer insults his enemy by condemning him to a cross. It was practically slang for failure and humiliation. 

It was only in the fifth century when the crucifixion appeared in Christian art, and you can be sure Christians were not wearing crosses around their necks as jewelry for a very long time.

But they began early on to process what it meant to their faith, and here in John’s Gospel we get a glimpse into how they were starting to make sense of it. By using a story they knew: Moses’ bronze serpent.

What if the cross, rather than being an object of death, and failure, was instead an instrument of our healing and salvation? If (as Moses did that serpent) we lift up those things that we’re afraid of--like death, shame, our frailty, our vulnerability, powerlessness, all things represented by the Christian cross--only then, in lifting up and looking at those things, do we find the freedom to make meaning of them, and in doing so, move beyond them. 

Anyone who’s been through a major trauma and come out the other side gets this: you don’t stuff away your memories and get on with things. You gradually unpack them, look at each one, turn them over; and only then Do you begin to heal. 

The cross saves us because it says it’s OK to be human; Christ was human. It’s OK to suffer; Christ suffered. It’s OK [fill in your greatest fear]; Christ faced that, too. And so we hold this symbol up, we march with it proudly week in and week out. We hang it in our churches. We wear it around our necks. We find our salvation in it. Amen.