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Easter And How to Kill Snakes

Perhaps it is that loathsome act of allurement and betrayal that has led us to have such a high disregard for snakes. Who could like them? I once wrote a children's poem celebrating the low esteem we all feel for them:

Snakes have a bad reputation.
It's what they deserve, after all!
Some rattle their tails,
Some fan out their necks,
Some hang in the trees,
Where you'd never suspect.
But they all crawl around,
And look sneaky and snakey.
Snakes prove that it's hard,
To like anyone,
Who lies in the grass,
And sticks out his tongue.

(Calvin Miller, Apples, Snakes and Bellyaches, p. 122)

Hildegard of Bingen was born in 1098 at Bermersheim near Mainz. Nine centuries later she has come into a new focus of mystical scholarship, and I must confess that I am taken with her walk of faith. To be sure it is less Southern Baptist than many would like, with her poems and home remedies.

Still, it is the Resurrection season, and I found myself intrigued by her odd mix of mysticism and ordinary life. She had it in for snakes, probably because as she wrote early on, "the Devil's fraud coming forth invaded the serpent, who already intended wickedly and fraudulently to deceive mankind. How? Because when the Devil saw Man in Paradise he cried out in great horror ... And thus he knew that he had not yet perfected the malice he bore within himself ..." (Sabina Flanagan, Secrets of God, Scivias, pp.13-14). Snakes as Hildegard saw it must be blamed for the mess of Eden and, hence, Calvary.

And Emily Dickinson wrote that she "more than once, at morn, had passed, she thought, a whiplash unbraiding in the sun, - When stooping to secure it, it wrinkled and was gone." She also confessed that she "never met this fellow, attended or alone, without a tighter breathing, and a zero at the bone." (Collected Poems, p. 140)

Even if they did not look "sneaky and snakey," it would be hard to forget what the snake did to Adam and Eve. That's why Hildegard of Bingen said we should pursue serpents with a vengeance: "The viper is as hot as fire, and all that is in it is deadly. ... If any man finds a dead viper, let him make a great fire from strong wood in a secret place where there are no people and throw the dead viper on the fire and then quickly withdraw from that place, lest its venom or bad vapors touch him." (p. 100)

God must have felt that way, for He went to a great deal of trouble to vanquish the serpent. He left His Son upon the cruel cross until He was dead and put in the tomb. Then on Easter He came out and all the evil of Eden was undone. The angel stood before the gaping cavern of the tomb and cried, "He is risen!" and the serpent was vanquished for all the evil he had done.

The worm of terror died!
The dragon of doom was chained
in the empty cavern of
death vacated by
the Living Christ.
The reptile of Eden had his
fangs ripped out,
his rattle amputated,
his beautiful seduction
panted in strokes of horror.
And the King lived.
All who looked, lived.

Hildegard must have understood God's once-for-all way of dealing with the seducer of humankind, for she broke into praise:

O shed blood
that rang on high
when all the elements
clashed together
voicing their woe
and trembling
as the blood of their Creator
touched them,
salve our sickness.

And she celebrates the Life of Easter when she writes:
Oh, how wonderful is the breath
That breathed man to life.
(p. 120)


Calvin Miller is professor of preaching and pastoral ministry at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala.

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April 2000 Edition
Volume 8, Issue 6
April 2000