Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent | Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; John 8:21-30
We have all seen the rod of Asclepius, or its common variation, the caduceus, on medical insignia throughout the world. It was the symbol of this Greek god of healing, but is also found here in our First Reading from the book of Numbers (21:4–9). It is a single or double serpent winding around a pole, and we are not sure if the Greeks or the Hebrews had it first. But surely its meaning was a universal discovery that today we would perhaps call vaccination! In short, “the cause is also the cure”! Who would have thought? It seems to be true both medically and psychologically.
At any rate, we have Moses prescribing such medicine to the complaining Hebrews in the desert, who were being bit by winged/fiery serpents. For some reason, he tells them to make a bronze version of the same and put it on a standard, which is perhaps unlikely considering their prohibition against idols. But he said, “If anyone is bitten and looks on it, they shall live.” Apparently, it worked, to their healing and our embarrassment.
The meaning and healing symbol returns again in John’s Gospel on many levels, all of them significant. The recurring phrase is, “the lifted up one.” It has now become a rallying cry for the Jesus who was raised up on the cross and thus “vaccinated us against” doing the same (3:13 and 19:37). Jesus being “lifted up” is offered as a healing icon of love to all of history (12:32), and finally, as a victory sign of the final resurrection and ascension of all the human ones, as is prefigured in today’s account about the archetypal “Human One,” Jesus (8:28).
This is powerful material, just as vaccinations always are. The crucified Jesus is God’s at least three-level vaccination plan: (1) against humanity’s desire to scapegoat or kill, (2) so we could “catch” a universal and healing love from God, and (3) toward the mutual encounter whereby we know the great “I AM” through our own deepest “I am.”
In each case, we have a Divine Medicine brought down to a small but potent dosage so we can handle it and it can handle us! That is what true spiritual symbols always do. Remember what we said earlier in Lent: Any direct contact with God is like contact with an electric wire—it burns you unless you have some good filters and a very humble humanity to receive it.
No wonder so many Catholics and Orthodox never tired of hanging images of the crucified Jesus in their homes and in their churches. We needed to “lift up” and “gaze upon” the transformative image just as Moses first did in the desert. It can and did and will change many lives and much of history.
“‘You belong to what is below. I belong to what is above. You belong to this world, the world which cannot hold me’ [“handle”?]. . . . So they said, ‘Who are you?’. . . ‘When you lift up the Son of Man you will gradually realize that I AM, and that I do nothing by myself.’” —John 8:23, 25, 28
“Dear and Divine Physician, I need all of the medicine you are willing to offer me. Give me what I can handle, when I can handle it, and may I let you be the Handler.”