In today’s Mass, the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (14th September), the first reading tells the story of the Israelites and the serpents during their wandering through the desert:
On the way through the wilderness the people lost patience. They spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in this wilderness? For there is neither bread nor water here; we are sick of this unsatisfying food.
At this God sent fiery serpents among the people; their bite brought death to many in Israel. The people came and said to Moses, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Intercede for us with the Lord to save us from these serpents.’ Moses interceded for the people, and the Lord answered him, ‘Make a fiery serpent and put it on a standard. If anyone is bitten and looks at it, he shall live.’ So Moses fashioned a bronze serpent which he put on a standard, and if anyone was bitten by a serpent, he looked at the bronze serpent and lived.
As LGBT Christians, we frequently have to deal with the poison of a particular kind of metaphorical serpent – that of homophobia. This may harm us in two distinct ways, by the discrimination, bullying or violence that may result, but also more insidiously, by poisoning our minds, so that we begin to believe some of the lies and fallacies ourselves, as internalized homophobia or self – loathing. It is in dealing with this latter poison, that the story of the serpents in Numbers carries a lesson for ourselves.
The Israelites were told that if bitten by a serpent, they should gaze on its image, and they would be healed. (It is from the story that we derive the image of the caduceus, the universal symbol of medicine). In the same way, when we are injured by homophobia, gazing on it and its source can heal us not of the objective harm, but of the subjective, internal poison. Homophobia and prejudice do not arise because of any fault or illness on our part, but from ignorance or irrational fear on the side of the bigots. Recognizing and understanding this, will help us to create the antivenom we need.