Most people know just two things about Saint Patrick: one, that he was Irish, and two, that he drove the snakes from Ireland.
Wrong, on both counts.
Turns out, Patrick was born in Scotland, not Ireland. As a teenager he was kidnapped and brought to Ireland by Irish pirates, who sold him into slavery there. After several years he escaped aboard a boat to France, and from there he made his way home, to be finally reunited with his parents, six years after his abduction.
You might think that after an experience like that, the last thing Patrick would ever want to see was the coastline of Ireland. But Patrick felt called to return, and after studying for the priesthood he returned to Ireland as a free man, to bring the liberating news of the gospel to place of his captivity. And so it was, that a foreign-born slave became the patron saint of the Irish people.
As for the snakes, well, it turns out, there were no snakes for Patrick to drive out. Snakes did not begin to colonize northern Europe until after the last Ice Age, and by the time they reached Britain, Ireland was already cut off by the Irish Sea. There is now, and ever has been, only one species of reptile in all of Ireland, and it is a lizard, not a snake. Legend may tell us that Saint Patrick drove the snakes from Ireland; but science tells us, there never were any.
But perhaps the legend refers to serpents of another kind. Reptiles are not the only creatures who can be venomous.
The Torah tells the story of a people wandering in the wilderness after their escape from slavery. They have been wandering now for years. They have become weary, and anxious. They have no water. They have no food. Things are so bad, they grow nostalgic for the days of their captivity. They begin to lost trust. They begin to turn on one another. And then, just when they think things can’t possibly get worse, the snakes appear.
Fire serpents, the Hebrew text calls them.
Are these fire serpents real, or metaphorical? Did the Israelites stumble into a literal snake pit, a valley full of vipers? This is entirely plausible; unlike Ireland, Israel is home to several species of poisonous snake. On the other hand, perhaps these serpents are not reptiles at all. Perhaps the venom in the Israelites’ veins came not from another species, but from their own human hearts.
Whichever interpretation you prefer, the scripture makes one thing clear: these serpents were real enough to kill. The people murmured, and the serpents came, and with them, they brought death.
The people cry out for help, and God offers a strange remedy, a sort of symbolic anti-venom. It will not banish the serpents, but it will render their venom powerless. Moses is to craft an image of the serpent, and raise it up high—and the people are to look upon it.
Is this magic? some sort of homeopathic cure? or maybe a desensitization treatment for a snake phobia? I can just magine Moses saying to God, Now, let me get this straight: so a golden calf was sacrilege, but a bronze snake on a stick is somehow okay?
Remember, the people in this story had watched their neighbors die of snake bite. You’d think the last thing they would want to see, would be a snake. But for whatever reason, the cure works – whoever looks upon the bronze snake, survives. The people with venom in their blood look upon the symbol of that venom, and they are cured.
But first, they have to look at the serpent.
It is the serpent we can’t bear to see – the poison we will not acknowledge, the venom we deny – that destroys us. Look at it directly, and it loses its power. As I once told my kids: The bee you are watching is not the bee that will sting you.
This story of the snake on a stick is not often told in mainline churches. It seems too superstitious, idolatrous even. But once every three years it crops up in the Christian lectionary, and this is that week. It crops up now, during the season of Lent, not because of our proximity to Saint Patrick’s day, but because of a passage from the Gospel according to John, where Moses’ serpent is mentioned again — immediately before what is arguably the most famous sentence in the whole New Testament:
“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. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.”
Jesus is speaking here of his impending crucifixion. He is speaking of the cross – of the power of the cross, which is, he implies, is somehow, like the power of that crazy snake on a stick.
If this comparison seems odd, ask yourself this: To a first-century Jew, which was more terrifying – the serpent, or the cross?
To Jesus and his followers, the cross was not an abstract symbol, but a concrete reality. Around the time Jesus was born, some 2000 Jews were crucified outside Jerusalem. The cross was not invented for Jesus. There were always crosses in Jerusalem.
Roman crucifixion was part of a deliberate strategy of terror, designed to let the people know who was in charge. It was never inflicted on Roman citizens, but was reserved for the rebellious slave, the rebellious peasant, for those who did not know their place. Crucifixion was intentionally painful, dehumanizing, and public. The cross was the lynching tree of the Roman Empire.
If you had watched your people die of snakebite, you would think the last thing you would want to see, would be a serpent raised high. If you had watched your people crucified, you would think the last thing you would want to see, would be that cross raised high.
Yet somehow, the cross of Jesus gave strength to those who lived in the shadow of the Roman cross – just as, centuries later, it would give strength to those who lived in the shadow of the lynching tree. Not by magically banishing the serpent — but by taking away its sting.
James H. Cone, in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, speaks of his childhood in the black church. “There were more songs, sermons, prayers, and testimonies about the cross than any other theme,” he says. “The cross was the foundation upon which their faith was built.” In the crucified Christ, they saw the affirmation of God’s solidarity with their own crucified people. The hangman might do his best, to rob them of their humanity. But the cross revealed the truth: that the one hanging from the tree was none other than the God’s beloved.
O death, where is thy sting?
But there is an addendum, to our story.
Moses lifted up the serpent, and the people were cured. And so it came to pass, in time, that a cult grew around the bronze figure, until eventually the people began to worship the serpent, instead of the God who delivered them from it. They began to serve it, to make offerings to it — to bow down before its sting, instead of facing up to it.
Here, too, perhaps, we see a parallel, between the image of the serpent and the image of the cross. The church has been tempted, again and again, to worship the cross, instead of the God who delivers us from it. The cross of the crusader, the cross of the inquisition, the cross of the Klan – the church has bowed down before these crosses, when it should have faced up to them.
Let this be a cautionary tale, then.
There is nothing supernatural about a bronze snake, or a gold cross. They are not magic, and they are certainly not gods. But seen through the eyes of faith, they are signs — of God’s presence, even in the most threatening and godforsaken of places.
The world is full of serpents still, and their sting can be deadly. But do not let them keep you from your journey. Remember that God journeys with you. So do not be afraid, for this death will not kill you.
Once upon a time, a young man named Patrick was sold into slavery, and escaped. You would think that after that experience, that last thing he would want to see was the coastline of Ireland. But God told him, do not be afraid.
These serpents cannot harm you.
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day.
sermon: Liza B. Knapp for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts
image: Stained glass window, Central United Methodist Church, Kansas City, MO