Monday, March 16, 2009

Homily / Sermon for Lent 4

For many years, as I watched my favourite Sci-Fi, Star Trek, I wondered what the strange logo or emblem was in the Sick Bay. It just shows how ignorant I was, because the picture I saw, of a stick with a snake wrapped round it, is an almost universal symbol for doctors and medical care. It comes from the story of Moses lifting up a stick with a serpent around it to heal the Hebrews in the desert. And it is mentioned at the beginning of today’s Gospel, as a sort of prophecy of the crucifixion and resurrection. And it is used today - and apparently in the 22nd century - as a symbol of healing.

Now this thought crossed over with another one. Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor was interviewed last week about his thoughts on his forthcoming retirement and gave his reflections on his time as Archbishop of Westminster and so on. One particular comment stood out to me. He spoke about belief and said that those who denied the exist of the spiritual were actually giving only a partial view of what it means to be human. Kn other words, the atheist does not put humanity at the centre, but actual reduces humanity by denying our spiritual dimension. It’s not a new idea at all and it’s been stated by many others, including the Holy Father, but it struck a chord as explaining why the Church so often seems to find itself in conflict with society - over Church schools, over abortion and euthanasia, over testing on embryos, over human sexuality - all of these ideas deny the spiritual dimension of humanity, and by doing this they make us less than human, more like animals.

Now then, these two thought come together - for me anyway - in today’s Gospel. ‘Men have shown they prefer darkness to the light … but the man who lives by the truth come out into the light.’

To deny the existence of God, and even more to act as if God does not exist, as if there is no spiritual dimension to human existence, is to live in darkness. It is a denial of the truth, a refusal or an inability to see what is there.

Sometimes there is a wilful blindness to the heritage of faith or the spiritual dimension of life, like a sort of rewriting of history. Let me explain. Take that symbol of healing - the serpent on the staff: it is a reminder of the spiritual dimension of our existence, and of the spiritual heritage of culture, but this is being lost, ignored or deliberately wiped out. The symbol is kept, but its meaning forgotten. And in writing about history, there is a fashion not to use AD and BC when identifying dates, but CE and BCE instead - but the numbers, the point of origin (the coming of Christ) remains the same, but deliberately hidden. And in politics, the draft constitution for the EU talked about the heritage of Europe’s history in Ancient Greece and Rome and the Enlightenment - deliberately forgetting to mention more than a thousand years of Christian history.

And when people deny the spiritual dimension of human life then all kinds of terrible consequences may follow. If we are not made in the image of God, than what is that makes us all equal? What then prevents us from claiming that some are superior to others, some have fewer rights than others, some have a greater worth or quality of life than others - whether that be by race, or age, or infirmity? Of course you do not have to be a believer to recognise the basic human dignity of all, but isn’t it odd that so many have no difficulty in asserting the equality of black and white, but not of born and unborn, of healthy and sick?

“God sent his Son into the world” - the Gospel tells us - “not to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved”. And he, the light of the world, gives us a way of seeing the full dignity of the human being, and the falsity of those who would keep humanity in darkness.

Note: the symbol mentioned here, called the Nehushtan or Rod of Asclepius, is often confused with the Caduceus which is in fact a different symbol and very commonly used in North America for healing services, though probably by confusion with the Biblical story. It is this symbol, I am sure, which features in Star Trek. The main difference is that the Caduceus has two serpents and is headed by wings. For a fuller explanation see

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