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In Canada, in British Columbia in particular, we don’t have to worry too much about poisonous snakes. The Western Rattlesnake is probably the closest we get. In BC, it typically shows up in the dryer spots like Vernon and parts of the Interior. Western Rattlesnake populations are actually on the decline, in part because they were hunted by settlers in the 1930s and ’40s to near extinction. Also, people are afraid of snakes. If you live near a den or in a known snake habitat, you might go out of your way to make sure they don’t get into your backyard (and who could blame you?). Then there are broader issues at play: “farms, subdivisions, highways, and other developments have destroyed some rattlesnake dens and foraging areas, and many snakes are killed by highway traffic. These threats will become more serious as land development and human populations increase.”

We might wonder: isn’t this a good thing? Who would want these slithery, slimy creatures around? There’s a reason it was a snake that tempted Adam and Eve in the garden. There’s a reason God, in the book of Numbers, sent snakes to bite people! Snakes are a symbol of evil and chaos. We’re not supposed to like snakes!

Nevertheless, I think it would be a shame if our snake populations disappeared, because I think they teach us an awful lot about God and about humanity. First of all, snakes must regularly shed their skin—at least once or twice a year— “when [their skin] becomes worn and too small. The old skin, shed from the nose backward, is turned inside-out . . . . [Snakes] are more vulnerable than usual during this process, which takes about 15 to 20 days.” They are known to “seek secluded places while it is going on.”

Isn’t it the case that humans, too, go through times of shedding, though of a more metaphorical sort? In the Anglican tradition, we go through two periods of spiritual shedding every year. We call it Advent and Lent, the penitential seasons (a time for turning away from those things which turn us away from God). We set aside time for self-examination and prayer. We shed habits that we’ve outgrown. These times of taking a hard look at ourselves can feel pretty vulnerable. 

Snakes are also den creatures. When they hibernate for the winter, they do so communally—in pits. Sometimes upwards of 300 snakes can be found in one pit! “Dens are the focal point of snake activity . . . . [A]l seasonal movements start and end there.” Pregnant snakes stick close to the den. While snakes will travel regularly from their den in the summertime, they almost always return to the same den each fall.

This kind of reminds me of church. At its best, church is the focal point of spiritual activity—a place where seasonal movements in our lives start and end, a place where, when we’re facing major life transitions, we find community. I was outside in front of the church last week taking a picture of the anchor as it was being lifted back onto the property. It had been in storage for a few weeks and it was really great to see this signature St Clement’s artefact return. As I was taking the photo, a big truck pulled up next to me. The driver rolled down their window and said, “Don’t worry, they’re not taking the anchor away, they’re actually just putting it back.”

I turned to him and said, “Hi! I’m Helen; I’m the priest here at the church.” 

And, I thanked him for keeping an eye on the anchor and letting people know that it wasn’t going anywhere.

Then, because I didn't recognize him, I said, “Hey, how come you have an interest in the St Clement’s anchor, anyway?” 

And, he told me about his history in Lynn Valley—he used to be Walter Draycott’s paperboy! 

So, I said, “There’s a war memorial tablet inside the chapel with Walter Draycott’s name on it! Have you ever been inside?” 

And, he said, “No, no, haven’t been inside for a while. Just like to keep an eye on the place.”

It’s amazing how we are with our “dens”, how we return to check on them, keep an eye on them, even if it’s been a while.

Finally, I think it’s really interesting that most poisonous snakes, including the variety we find in BC, won’t actually bite people unless they are disturbed. “In recent years . . . the average number of people bitten in BC has been only three or four per year, and only one of 63 bites was fatal. Many bites are a result of foolish behaviour and could be avoided.” 

Which makes me wonder: if the snakes which God sent out among the people in our Old Testament lesson today were the variety that could have been easily avoided, could it be that the people of God, in their vulnerable state, were seeking out sources of pain in an attempt to heal? When we are hurting, do we sometimes seek out pain in an effort to heal? 

The people of God are told to look at the snake that Moses lifted up in the wilderness—and live. Perhaps the snake wasn’t so much God wagging a finger at the people of God for complaining as it was God holding up a mirror. What might happen if they were to look at the snake, to see the source of their pain and live? Could there be healing where there was once only suffering and death?

Jesus will repeat the story of the snake being lifted up in the wilderness when he’s talking with Nicodemus, the fella from our gospel reading today. I’ve often thought Nicodemus represents anyone who’s ever struggled to see a future for themselves because of the pain they’ve experienced in their past. I think of Nicodemus as a survivor, someone who has experienced trauma and is trying to make things better for their life going forward. 

Jesus tells Nicodemus the story of Moses lifting up the snake, but this time, he says it’s him, Jesus, who will be lifted up. Jesus will become the mirror people look into and live, the place where they see their humanity fully embraced by God, their pain and suffering held and known by God. I don’t know a lot about trauma; I know a little about holding onto pain from the past. What I’ve learned from folks who do know about these things is that a big part of recovery involves looking your pain in the eye and choosing to live—sometimes daily. In biblical times, snakes were seen as a symbol of evil and chaos; but Moses and Jesus talked about them as an invitation to healing and restoration. I pray you find here at St Clement’s a warm den to return home to, a place where, knowing your pain is held and known by God, you, too, can look up at Jesus and live. Amen.

Works referenced:

Donald A. Blood, Western Rattlesnake (Province of British Columbia: Ministry of Endowment, Lands, and Parks: October 1993) accessed online on 09 March 2024.

Victoria Marie, “Fourth Sunday in Lent, year ‘B’: Transformation” in Wild Lectionary (05 March 2024) accessed online on 09 March 2024.