After God had liberated the Israelites from oppressive slavery in Egypt, when Moses was leading them to their own homeland, the people complained to Moses, "Have you brought us out of Egypt into the wilderness so that we'll die here? We don't have any food or water. We can't stand this worthless food." (God had been providing them with food all along, but they wouldn't be satisfied.)
Because of their lack of faith, serpents came from the wilderness to invade their camp. Many of the Israelites died from snake bites. The people approached Moses in repentence saying, "We have sinned by complaining against you and against God. Pray to God on our behalf so that He will take these snakes away from us."
Moses prayed for the people. God mercifully replied, "Make a serpent and place it on a pole. Whenever someone who has been bitten looks upon it, he will be healed."
Following God's instructions, Moses made a bronze serpent and placed it upon a pole. God healed everyone who looked upon it.
The bronze serpent that Moses raised up in the age of the ancient prophets pointed to the time when God would dwell among humanity to heal us all from the affects of death, giving us the fullness of life. Speaking about Himself, Christ proclaimed, "No one has gone up to heaven except the One who came down from heaven, the Son of Man. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, the Son of Man must also be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life."
Orthodox bishops often carry a staff as a symbol of their authority as shepherds of the Church. A staff may be crowned with two serpents facing each other, each one looking upon the Cross centered between them. The bishop is the chief physician who oversees the Church, the spiritual hospital founded by the Great Physician, Christ Himself. When we see the bishop's staff we should remember that Christ came to heal us. He was lifted upon the Cross to triumph over death, which had infected humanity and the whole cosmos. Through the Cross, the Tree of Life, we have life.
The Orthodox Way is the way of the Cross, the way of divine healing. Within the Orthodox Church we participate in the divine life and receive the healing grace of God that transforms us into true human beings who embody divine love, live in communion with our Creator, and promote harmony in the world around us.
A couple photos of Metropolitan Philip with a staff like the one described here is available on Wikipedia.
Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. The public domain image of "Moses and the Brazen Serpent" by Sébastien Bourdon is available at the Art Renewal Center. Used by permission.
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