Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Name Change - Part Deux

Serpentis Sacra. "Sacred Serpents."

A few months ago, I came across an article about a distant relative of mine - one I'm rather fond of. John Bramhall. Archbishop of Armagh, via media defender of the Anglican church against Puritans and Papists alike.

I felt a sense of kinship with John Bramhall that surpassed our common bloodline; He and I share many of the same theological and sociopolitical views. One of his books is entitled Serpent Salve. I first thought of Latin for "Holy Serpent." Quickly, I realized he meant ointment for a snake bite.

Even so, that is where the initial inspiration came from.

The snake is a complicated creature in Christian mythology and symbolism.
  • Satan tempts Eve under the guise of a serpent.
  • Moses impales a (flying?) snake, commanding the children of Israel to gaze upon it; Whoever is bitten receives healing. Healing from the (flying) snakes that just bit them.
  • Jesus refers to the Pharisees as a "brood of vipers."
  • Christ's crucifixion echoes the piercing of the snake by Moses.
  • Mary is often depicted crushing a snake beneath her feet, a sign that she is the "new Eve."
  • St. Patrick is rumored to have driven poisonous asps from the fields of Ireland.
  • Orthodox bishops adorn their episcopal staves with intercoiled snakes, as my friends at JN1034 pointed out.
This despised and wretched creature - one of the "beasts that creeps upon the Earth" - is perhaps the weirdest animal to represent Christ.

Even after his crucifixion and resurrection, the snake is displayed in churches solidly beneath the feet of Mary and Patrick, or else lurking about Paradise, an unwanted virus. This iconography is confusing at best, especially when displayed next to images of Christ-the-serpent.

The Israelites were bitten by the snake to receive healing from other bites. If Christ is the new serpent, then we have been bitten by him, and his venom inhabits our veins forever. His humanity is forever united to ours, and we participate in his divinity.

That symbolism is still bizarre.

You know, that's why I like it. The despised serpent has been raised up and redeemed. What once embodied fear is a symbol of hope. What once crawled on its belly now soars in the air.

We are to be holy serpents.


Thom Curnutte said...

That's beautiful, and very appropriate.

JN1034 said...

A most articulate and appropriate post coming from the venerable bloodline of Church hierarchy (OMG, that's you!).

How magnificent, Eric: "we have been bitten by him, and his venom inhabits our veins forever."

Holy serpents, indeed!

Andrew Teather said...

The Guild of Servants of the Sanctuary, a group which enjoys liturgy so high you need supplementary oxygen to breathe, is often referred to a the 'Gilded Serpents of the Sanctuary'.

eric said...

Thanks, guys :)

Oh my bloodline has some, er, interesting characters. Maybe I'll write a post about that soon!

Andrew, I didn't know that. But now the new title seems extra appropriate. Bring on the smoke!