14th September 2014
The Kenites were a tribe of nomadic people in the Sinai desert area about 1200 BC; they were metal workers and their name would translate as’ Smith.’ In that area, evidence has been found of metal representations of a serpent on a rod, probably linked with a religious belief in its curative powers. These images were treated as sacred by the Israelites for we know that in 700 BC king Hezekiah had them all destroyed (2 Kings 18:1-7) as pagan idols. Our reading today tells of the origin of this cult among the Chosen People. Moses was leading the people in the area of the Kenites with which he was familiar. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, was a Kenite, and that is how Moses would have know about the serpent. The serpent on a cross is to this day a symbol of the medical profession and there are a lot of different accounts of its origin (try googling “medical symbol”)! Some scholars have thought that one of the names the Kenites had for God was Yahweh, the name revealed to Moses at a burning bush when he was shepherding in that area (see Exodus 3:1-14). A lot of superstitions creep into religious practice and Christianity has its fair share of these, but they do not persist for ever. A later book in the Catholic Bible, the Wisdom of Solomon, explains away any superstition about this symbol: “the one who turned towards it was saved, not by the thing that was beheld, but by You, the Saviour of all, … it was your word, O Lord, that heals all people.” The gospel reading will reveal why this is our first reading today.
The second reading is a very early hymn from the Jewish Christian community that Paul is quoting. It is about the saving work of Christ, but in Paul’s letter it is introduced with a very important sentence for us (which our reading follows): “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus, who …” There are what we would call six verses to the poem: about the pre-existence of Christ as God, the emptying of Himself to become one of us, the humble self-sacrificing of his life on earth, His exaltation, His acclamation over the whole of creation and the acknowledgement of Him as the Lord God. It is the first of these, particularly, that is held up as the pattern for the way that we, Christians, should live; it uses a Greek word for emptying that has given rise to a whole way of thinking, the word kenosis, but it is not just thinking but rather the entire way that we should lead our lives as Christians (see also Wikipedia).
This reading is part of the story about Nicodemus’ conversation with Jesus at night-time. Jesus’ statement about the need for rebirth is not understood and He asks how then can Nicodemus grasp heavenly truths. Only someone who has come down from heaven can explain these – Jesus, the Son of Man. And the great mystery is that of the cross. John uses the words “lifted up” in many places to refer simultaneously to the cross and the exaltation of Christ, for the mystery is that Jesus’ self sacrifice of His life is, at the same time, the fulfillment of the glorious transformation of the human to something that is heavenly. He likens it to the sign of the serpent lifted up for those who see it to be healed, but here it is those who believe that are saved. The incident of the first reading is seen as a type or foreshadowing of the saving power of the mystery of the cross for those who believe – who are born anew. Our self-sacrifice is sharing in the very life and glory of God!