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  • The Revd Canon Camellia Flanagan, TSSF

Snakes and Cakes

Lent 4 Numbers 21:4-9 Psalm107: 1-3, 17-22 John 3:14-21

Laetare Mothering Sunday and Baptism

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today we find in our liturgy a whole pile of symbols. We have the symbols of Baptism, the symbols of salvation and healing and a symbol of care and nurture. So, let us begin to look at them and unravel the myth from what we understand as truth.

We have on the cover of our service bulletin a photograph of a monument to the bronze serpent, which Moses erected in the Negev - the desert. This is on Mount Nebo, in front of the church of Saint Moses and is a very recent structure erected in 2018.

After they had left Egypt the Israelites set out from Mount Hor where Aaron had died and was buried to go to the Red Sea. They had to travel the long way round because the people of Edom would not let them travel through their country. Food and water in the desert were scarce and we are told God provided mana for them to eat and pure lifesaving water to drink. The manna appeared like some sort of flaky frost every morning, enough for them to eat each day, but they were fed up with eating the same thing for so long even though they prepared it in many different ways with spices and herbs. They were complaining a lot about it. They complained against God and against Moses who was leading them. There are a lot of snakes in the desert that hide in the sand and people were bitten by the snakes and some died. They interpreted this as God being angry with them and they repented. They asked Moses to intercede for them, so Moses prayed to God.

With God’s instructions, Moses made a serpent of bronze and put it on a pole and anyone who was bitten who looked at it would live.

The people needed to learn to trust in God. However, this did not remove the source of the people’s suffering, it enabled them to survive it. Archaeological history tells us that in parts of the land of Canaan a Serpent or snake God was found, which meant that people eventually forgot God and thought more of the image.

How did they come to forget God? They refused to obey God’s laws, they forgot the miracles God had done for them and their spirits were not faithful to God. It is easy for us to do the same, so from time to time we need to remember and be thankful for all that God has done for us. And God has done much more. When the snake was lifted up on the pole in the desert the Israelites could not know the fuller meaning Jesus Christ would bring to this event.

The symbolism of the serpent being lifted up appears again in the gospel reading. John tells us that Jesus explained that just as the Israelites were healed of their sickness by looking at the snake on the pole, all believers today can be saved from the sickness of sin by looking to Jesus’ death on the cross. It was not the snake that healed the people, but their belief that God could heat them. This belief was demonstrated by their obedience to God’s instructions. In the same way we can continue to look to Christ.

John 3 verse 16,17 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

God’s love is not static or self-centered. It reaches out and draws others in. In these verses God sets the pattern of true love, the basis for all love relationships – when you love someone dearly you are willing to give freely to the point of self-sacrifice. God paid dearly with the life of his Son, the highest price he could pay. Through love Jesus accepted death and paid the price for our sins and then offered us the new life that he had bought for us. In the symbol of Baptism, we die with Christ, we are symbolically drowned and come up out of the waters of death gasping for air, in other words breathing in new life that has been freely given to us. Today is also Mothering Sunday or Laetare Sunday. A celebration day, in the middle of the season of Lent. Mothering Sunday was first celebrated in the UK around the 16 Century. It became a tradition that, on the fourth Sunday of Lent, people would return to their mother church. the main church of the region or Cathedral for a special service. This pilgrimage was something of a holiday event, with domestic servants traditionally given the day off to visit their own families as well as their mother church.

One of the tastiest traditions of Mothering Sunday was the baking of Simnel cake.

This light fruit cake made with fine flour – simnel - consists of layers of cake and marzipan, a traditional Simnel cake also reflects the religious overtones of the event by being adorned with 11 balls of marzipan, representing all the disciples of Jesus, minus Judas. This tradition fell out of fashion at the dawn of the 20th Century and later became a tradition taken up by the Anglican Mothers Union. Whatever reason it is a good excuse to eat some nice cake after church on Sunday.

So, through life we look at the symbols of healing, the serpent on the pole, the symbols of baptism and salvation, life giving water washing us clean, Christ lifted up on the Cross and eternal life, and the light of Christ to guide us, the nourishment of a simnel cake and spiritual nurture of being Church, reminding us of the disciples bringing us the gospel. These symbols all contribute to help us understand who we are as children of the Living God and confirm our identity as we live in the light of Christ and work for the Kingdom of God in this place.


Blessing of Simnel Cake

Almighty God, giver of all joy: Receive at our hands this cake, that it may be to us a symbol of our communion with you and with one another; as its flour was once scattered over our land as wheat and now is one, so let us be one in anticipation of your gift of the new Jerusalem which, as your redeemed people, is our joy, our hope, our destiny, and our home. Hear us, O Lord, through Jesus Christ your Son, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit be all honour and glory, now and for ever. Amen

The Reverend Canon Camellia Flanagan TSSF

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