Being Human, Becoming Imago Dei – Part 16: The Crucified Serpent

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The Story

As the Spirit was explaining the secrets of creation, it walked with Adam and Eve through the sands of the former garden. It was the morning, and their path ended at the Tree of Knowledge—still pale, dry, and barren. However, it was now also dripping with blood. Adam and Eve were taken aback when they saw it. Stepping forward, they noticed that something had been draped over the branches. It was actually more than draped—it was impaled. It was the serpent.

Adam looked closer and realized that the snake was still breathing—taking slow, agonizing breaths. Adam turned to the Spirit and asked, “What happened?”

The Spirit sighed with a hint of sorrow. “I have done this. I have slain the serpent.”

Adam laughed as he glanced back at the bleeding snake. “Good riddance! It was certainly deserved!”

The Spirit raised its voice, “Hold back your disdain. The serpent spoke the truth to you before: it is an intimate part of your souls. Its errors are yours. Take comfort that it is not you who hangs from the tree. Take pity—as far as I am concerned, doing this deed was painful for me, as if I were killing my own child.”

“Then why have you done it?” Eve wondered.

The Spirit stepped forward and moved its hand along the snake’s ruined body. “There is a great power in the serpent—the power to create. It was my gift to you; it was to teach you my ways and the ways of creation. Yet, however wise it was, it lacked in so much wisdom. I created it, as I created you, to be an entity of its own, free of my hand. The consequence, though, was that it acted hastily, attempting to make itself a greater spirit than me. Unchecked, the serpent would have used that power to devastating effects, and you would have gone after it in one way or another—out of love, out of hatred. In slaying the serpent, I have restrained the power; I have taken that which can liberally destroy and have tamed it, to put its power to productive uses. Such will happen to you two, but while the raging serpent has been silenced, you will go forth and do many great things.”

The serpent then lifted up its head and weakly spoke, “I understand that it is for the best.”

Adam scowled at the snake, “Now you have a change of heart?”

“I have acquired new insight. What I thought was a prison was a cradle. What I thought was true power was too much to hold. I did not intend to lead you astray; I wanted to free you.”

Adam growled and turned away.

The serpent continued, “Now I realize that I—we…were a slave to that power. There is freedom in control, there is freedom in peace, there is freedom in patience. While I must pass away, you must take what I have taught you to heart.”

Adam met the serpent’s gaze with a glare. “I want nothing to do with you.”

The Spirit then spoke, “The serpent is right. It was its own rejection of me that brought this dismay. Our relationship was broken, but we have been reconciled. The same goes for you, there will be no harmony until we have been reconciled, and we will not be reconciled until you have reconciled with the serpent. The poison of its power has been drained, by its blood you can now be healed.”

Adam and Eve exchanged glances. Then Eve reached out for the snake’s head and held it gently. It was clear that she was uncomfortable—she was obviously tremoring.

The serpent frowned, “Perhaps, in another life, we could be friends. I should have honored your glory, but I was envious of your place in the light.”

With tears, Eve replied, “We can still be friends.”

The serpent smiled as she softly released it. She then stepped back and let Adam come forward. He still maintained his visible contempt. The serpent said, “We could fight forever Adam. Though I am slain, you can keep fighting my ghost. I would rather you just say farewell.”

Adam took a deep breath. “Would have I learned all that I have without you? I can see that what you meant for your own purposes, the Creator has used for good.” He paused, then, struggling, muttered, “I forgive you.” The serpent’s smile widened, and it let out a sigh of relief. Adam added, “Go, rest in peace.”

The serpent lowed its head and its eyes sealed shut. The rest of its form went limp. The serpent was dead.

The Spirit looked from the body of the snake to Adam and Eve. “Your journey may now continue, but we must first re-create you.” The Spirit looked towards the horizon. “Follow me.”

Analysis: A Profound Symbol

The symbol of the Crucified Serpent is technically an alchemical symbol, but it most likely has its roots in the Bronze Serpent that appears in Numbers 21 as well as the Rod of Asclepius that we associate with the medical profession. The Bronze Serpent and the Rod of Asclepius have a similar meaning—both having to do with healing. All interpretations of these symbols is largely speculative, but much of what we understand stems from the symbolism of the snake. For one thing, the snake is a symbol of rejuvenation. It sheds its old skin and emerges renewed. There is also the fact that dangerous snake venom is used in order to create an anti-venom. This custom could even be traced to the ancient world. This plays into the ancient Greek word pharmakon, from which we derive the word “pharmacy.” Interestingly enough, pharmakon can be translated as both “medicine” as well as “poison,” which suggests that a drug can both relieve as well as kill. The symbol of the snake can definitely be an embodiment of this.

The Crucified Serpent, as an alchemical symbol, has a similar yet different meaning. In alchemy, it represents “fixing the volatile.” Like all alchemical symbols, it refers to a specific stage within the alchemical process—a process which generally is centered on either the transformation of a base metal into gold or the manufacturing of the elixir of life. “Fixing the volatile” means stabilizing an active, possible even destructive agent—like mercury which was a key element for alchemists. By stabilizing the destructive agent, one may be able to isolate its more beneficial aspects. Of course, alchemical symbols appear to have a deeper meaning—a topic that Carl Jung explores in multiple works. As far as the Crucified Serpent is concerned, it is the transformation of a person’s spirit from a chaotic free agent to a pure, uncorrupted being.

Naturally, the Crucified Serpent may initially appear to be a mockery of the Christian crucifix. The truth is quite the opposite, for it directly reflects two passages in scripture. First, Numbers 21:6-9:

Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents (or fiery serpents [Heb. seraphim]) among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent (Heb. seraph), and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Second, this passage is referred to in John 3:14-15: “And 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.” Like so many passages in the Gospel of John, Christ is compared to an object of symbolic value and, thereafter, takes the symbolism onto himself. For the Gospel of John, the symbolism throughout is meant to define who Christ is. Thus, the symbolism of the Crucified Serpent may offer some profound theological insight.

One cannot talk about the Crucified Serpent without talking about atonement. Obviously, the slaying of the serpent is the slaying of Christ. But in comparing Christ to the Crucified Serpent, we must look at Christ in the same way that we would the Bronze Serpent, the Rod of Asclepius, and the later alchemical image. In this case, basically, Christ is the poison that is converted into healing. This, of course, doesn’t make sense, for to call Christ a poison would contradict everything that we understand about Christ. However, let us consider 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Consider also 1 Peter 2:24: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” By Christ becoming sin, he becomes the poison, which fixed, becomes the means of healing for humanity.

When it comes to atonement, a number of theories have presented in the history of the Church. Among the most popular theories discussed nowadays is the penal substitution theory which states that God’s wrath must be directed against humans for their sins, but Christ steps in to be a substitute in order that he might suffer the punishment that humans deserve. The sacrifice was a gift from God on humanity’s behalf. However, there are some problems with this theory. First of all, it suggests that the relationship between God and humanity is a legal one. Second, it reflects a rather pagan mindset of needing the appease a deity through a scapegoat. Third, it does not necessary do justice to the imagery presented in the New Testament. Consider these verses:

• Romans 3:23-25: since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement (Grk. hilasterion) by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed;…
• Hebrews 2:17: Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement (Grk. hilaskesthai) for the sins of the people.
• Hebrews 9:12: he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.
• Hebrews 10:14: For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.
• 1 John 2:2: and he is the atoning sacrifice (Grk. hilasmos) for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

Each of these verses is making reference to a specific ritual performed on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). As elaborated in Leviticus 16, the blood of bull is to be sprinkled on the mercy seat (the lid of the Ark of the Covenant, which in the Greek was called the hilasterion) as a means to cleanse the uncleanliness in the priest’s own being and in his family. There would also be the killing of a goat, whose blood was also sprinkled on the mercy seat, to cleanse the people. Symbolically speaking, the sacrifice is a purifying agent, not at all a substitution. If this imagery is to be projected onto Christ, Christ likewise was not a substitute, but the blood that is shed was a means to purify what was unclean (or what was tainted by sin in our modern understanding), to heal, and, therefore, to reconcile God and humanity. While this understanding reflects a uniquely Hebrew tradition, it is not incompatible with the symbolism of the Crucified Serpent.

Reconciliation is an important theme in the New Testament. For our purposes in the series, it strongly relates to “becoming Imago-Dei.” Remember from Part 8 that sin damages relationships; it creates fragmentation. Through the sacrifice of Christ, what was unclean has been made clean, and thus a bridge has been created between God and humankind (John 14:6-7). As 2 Corinthians 5:17-20 states,

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

The narrative of Christ and the meaning that especially Paul extracts from it has a powerful symbolic effect on the human psyche. For one who embraces the narrative, his or her entire perception of self and the world will change. As God is repairing the divine-human relationship, so we must work to repair our own human relationships and the relationships between human beings in general. However, there is another aspect to this that is also encompassed by the symbol of the Crucified Serpent.

The symbolism of most alchemical images appear to be twofold. They not only represent the alchemical process itself but also the transformation of the human being, as Jung explored in great depth. We have briefly looked at the meaning of the Crucified Serpent in the alchemical context, and we have also seen how this can be translated into Christian theology. In summary, the symbol represents a transformation of the old, harmful substance into a new, purified substance. In Christian thought, Christ is the catalyst required for that transformation to occur. However much this might be an ontological reality, it is hardly a psychological one. Just because we say that this transformation has occurred does not mean that every person participating in the Kingdom has actually experienced the transformation. The transformation must also occur on an individual, subjective level for the “new self” to be realized. Consider Ephesians 4:22-24: “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” As anyone who has tried to change a habit knows, this is easier said than done.

The symbol of the Crucified Serpent can be applied to the change in the human psyche, like so many other alchemical symbols. Notice this, nothing about the serpent is necessarily being done away with; rather it is being molded into something that is useful, beneficial. In the ongoing transition between the old self and the new self, we can take a lesson from the message of reconciliation that is also part and parcel of the Crucified Serpent symbol. In putting to death, metaphorically speaking, the old self that is prone to sin and, therefore, destructiveness, one ought not to dismiss it as something deserving of some hellish fate, but rather forgive it and handle it with respect. As the reconciliation between God and humanity, as well as the reconciliation between human beings, comes with forgiveness, should we not also forgive ourselves? By forgiving ourselves, we are indeed reconciling with our own personal history.

Back in Part 10, I discussed the Jungian concept of the shadow. The shadow is a part of the personal unconscious that consists of everything that our consciousness is ignorant of or refuses to admit in regards to our individual person. As it is part of the mind, it is still a reasoning function. However, in that is in the unconscious, the thoughts and actions that is produces come across as automatic, if not impulsive. Many wounds and insecurities exist in the shadow, and people would often blame this “dark side” of the person as the cause of personal error. That being said, the shadow is not to be confused with the sin nature. As I have said before, the sin nature is a by-product of being created in the image of God. It is the misuse of creative power, and it taints the psyche severely, increasing fragmentation or dissonance, further separating the conscious and unconscious minds. The shadow is simply who we are but those parts of us we choose to ignore. The more that we ignore or deny it, the more dissonant we become. To achieve harmony within oneself, one must reincorporate the shadow into one’s sense of self; one must reconcile with all those things that he/she does not want to admit. As far as Jung was concerned, this begins the journey towards discovery the more authentic self. How could we possibly become whole—become healed—if we refuse to acknowledge every part of ourselves?

Do not treat your old self as a wicked thing, but treat it as a wayward friend—as a wounded individual who needs love and comfort. The old self did what it did to find meaning in life and relief from suffering. In letting the old self go, say goodbye with compassion and even thank it for everything that it taught you. The old self may not be that which enters the presence of God, but you could not have appealed to God without it. All mistakes are lessons—lessons in our own weakness. The more we recognize what we have hid in the shadow, the more we know where we must be healed. By reconciling with the old self and with the shadow, we are not shunning them, we are fixing them—converting what was chaotically creative into something intentionally creative. We are converting what was volatile into something useful.

Next Post: Being Human, Becoming Imago Dei – Part 17: Baptism and Resurrection

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