Snakes do not tend to get a good rap in Christian iconography. We don’t generally like snakes, and culturally they have taken on an image that is far from pleasing. It is this cultural association—deeply ingrained in our human ancestry—which has driven our negative religious associations and iconography.
From the very beginning, it is Satan, the nemesis of God, who takes on the form of a serpent and leads human creation to its fall from innocence. It is the devil, in the form of a snake, who deceives and tempts and generally leads people away from God. Jesus, in today’s Gospel, is quite explicit in his own imagery, ‘I have given you power to tread underfoot serpents and scorpions and the whole strength of the enemy; nothing shall ever hurt you.’
Yet, in one very crucial image, offered by Jesus himself, the snake is used to convey salvation. It was Moses who, at God’s command, fashioned a bronze serpent, to be held up before the sinning people of Israel to save them from death. And this specific image Jesus then used to describe his own act of salvation on the cross, saying to Nicodemus, ‘As Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life’ (John 3.14–15). Not all images of the snake are negative; some can be salvific.
What we can say is that things familiar to a culture—especially plants and animals—have always been used to understand and symbolise matters of faith. Every culture, from the time of Adam and Eve, has used such non-human images to convey what is truly human. But these are culturally specific: what means one thing in a particular culture might indicate something different in another. This has always been the way of Christian imagery and iconography. We are, after all, an incarnational faith—a faith made flesh in Jesus Christ—and that faith will seek out culturally meaningful icons to give expression to what we believe.
On the very floor of our Cathedral sanctuary, you will find images of bulls, eagles and lions. On the walls above the high altar is a pelican feeding her young. Snakes are woven into intricate Celtic designs, and dragons are fashioned into gargoyles that adorn the facade. Lambs and turtles and doves and bees and horses and lizards and whales and dolphins and elephants and so many other creatures have been used by human cultures to mark out the Christian faith, just as Paul pointed to the marks on his body as signs of Christ.
Like every other human culture, the Indigenous peoples of Australia have found deep meaning in the things around them and, from them, ways of conveying the Christian faith. Chief among them has been the serpent, but not in a predominantly negative way. It is a symbol of the Creator of all, the life-giving Spirit. Other familiar images also bring meaning: the turtle, the cockatoo, the lizard, the fish—each bringing something to the Christian imagination. Out the front of our Cathedral is such an example: an Indigenous representation of the Blessed Trinity and of creation. Not clover leaves or circles or triangles, but bird and snake and water. And, of course, there is the fire of purification and repentance, the water of cleansing and life, the plants of healing and nourishment.
On this Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday, may the call of the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest produce the Good News of life in abundance for all, by telling the same story through the eyes and hearts of Indigenous Christians.
Archbishop Peter A Comensoli03 February 2023
Archbishop Peter A Comensoli31 January 2023