The first time I saw death, it was a murder: the murder of President Kennedy in a broadcast of the Zapruder film when I was 14 years old.
It’s almost an Augustinian parable about our fallenness and fascination with death. I had, like all American boys my age, already witnessed thousands of pretend deaths on TV, but something in me hankered to see “the real thing.” So I watched — and was traumatized for years both by the horror of watching a real man die and by the fact that I had, of my own free will, chosen to engage in a sort of pornography. Like Adam and Eve, I had thought this would make me wiser. It just damaged me and killed something in me. It was like the bite of a serpent and the poison worked for years to fill me with the fear of death.
In Numbers 21, we read of a strange incident in the history of Israel. In yet another irrational assertion of their fallenness, the children of Israel grumble yet again against God and are afflicted with poisonous snakes that sting and kill them in great numbers. Moses pleads yet again for them and God commands Moses to make a bronze serpent and hoist it aloft on a pole, with the promise that all who look upon it will be healed of the snakebite. It’s a strange command, which we intuit is pregnant with some hidden meaning. But the text does not explain the meaning. It merely notes that it worked and leaves Israel to ponder what this odd sign signifies. What is the sense of looking straight at the thing that is killing you as a way of being healed of its poison?
Thirteen centuries pass before we discover the point. Jesus tells us: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).
Jesus is to be lifted up on the cross (and lifted up again from the grave, and lifted up still a third time in his Ascension) so that we may be healed of the ultimate snakebite: the one we received from the serpent in the garden.
This is why we always have a crucifix present at Mass. For our healing too lies in looking at, not turning away from, the thing we fear most. But it is a peculiar kind of looking, not the pornographic ogling at death I sinfully indulged in as a stupid adolescent. Rather, it is looking at Christ’s death in all its horror and obscenity through the knowledge of the Resurrection that has transformed death from a hole into a door. Jesus has removed the sting of death just as surely as the bronze serpent removed the serpent’s sting in the wilderness.
Death becomes powerless to harm, even when it kills us. Indeed, it is forced into servitude to life and its Author and dragged in chains behind his triumphal chariot as a trophy of victory.
That, by the way, is all the news the Christian tradition has ever had to tell us: God has become man and conquered death so that we may become God. That’s not Mormonism or Joseph Smith or some New Age fad talking. That’s St. Athanasius. And he’s just cribbing from 2 Peter 1:3-4, which tells us, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature.”
Jesus transforms us from fallen animals who kill and are killed (and whose young are eager to watch it all on TV) to “partakers in the divine nature.” That is the triumph we celebrate when we see the cross in the light of Easter. “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55).
Mark Shea blogs at NCRegister.com and is senior content editor at Catholic Exchange.