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Advent III: Seeking the Holy Through the Tactile

Advent III: Seeking the Holy Through the Tactile

December 12, 2021

from Luke 3:7–18: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

The Gospel for Advent 3 contains a number of tactile images. Some of them draw on the four elements of classical Greek thought—earth, air, fire, and water. Fire and water are explicitly mentioned. “Earth” is suggested by the word “stones.” “Air” is implied in the image of “winnowing,” an action that, in biblical days, would have involved throwing grain into the air and letting wind blow away the unusable chaff. Other images suggestive of touch include coats, the untying of sandals, and an ax lying at the root of the trees, ready to cut down the one that does not bear good fruit. We know, or can imagine, how each of those things would feel—and at least one of them (being cut down) would not feel good.

My entire life I have felt at home in the natural world, even in the dark. Late summer evening walks can be especially delightful when cooler temperatures provide relief from the day’s heat. And so, it was last June when I went out, close to dark (and without a flashlight), for a walk on a neighborhood road. One particular block is narrow, with houses set back from the street and woods on both sides. On that stretch, I hugged the left edge of the pavement in case a car came along. Suddenly I felt a sharp sting on the outside of my right ankle. What on earth? I turned, and by my cell phone’s light, saw the answer: I had just been bitten by a copperhead.

Physically, I was fortunate. The copperhead had not delivered a full dose of venom. I needed only a tetanus shot and twenty-one hours in the hospital for observation. As it turned out, the physical healing was the easy part. I was fine. I kept telling everyone that, myself included. Except for some residual swelling, I was fine. No real damage done. I was lucky. I was fine. Truly, I was just fine.

Except that I wasn’t. What I did not acknowledge to myself or anyone else is that I felt like I had been struck at my roots by an ax—not physically, but emotionally. I felt betrayed by the world I love. I felt wary of walking outdoors, even in broad daylight. I felt emotionally and spiritually out of kilter. Had I been birding when I was bitten, I might have made sense of the bite. But to have been bitten on a residential road, one that I knew well, at nine o’clock at night by a venomous snake that must have been at least four feet out into the pavement—that seemed unfathomable. With that one bite, the outdoor world had become treacherous.

I did some reading about copperheads. They are nocturnal, and on a cool night, a still-warm street would of course be the perfect place for them to wait for prey. I don’t know why I didn’t know that before, but as new knowledge, the information helped me make some intellectual sense of the event. However, the knowledge did little to ease my anxiety or to heal the damage done to my spirit. I kept looking for a way to make meaning out of the snakebite. I recalled that, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus told his disciples to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” I began wondering if the copperhead might have delivered some wisdom along with its venom.

I cannot explain exactly how everything unfolded—it wasn’t a very linear process. But here’s the gist. I finally turned to my journal and wrote about the experience. I went back through the evening step by step, reliving the shock of the sting, letting myself admit my profound sense of betrayal. Only this time, I imagined that Jesus was walking with me. As I wrote, my tears came, tears I had been holding back for weeks while I pretended to be fine. I wept as I admitted the truth about my sense of betrayal, my fear and anxiety. Jesus listened, and he held me and my tears.

A day or two later, I recalled that a copperhead’s skin is often described as having an hourglass pattern—a symbol of the passing of time. I started thinking about my age and about what I still want to do before my time runs out. I was acutely aware that I had promised to send anthem texts to two different composers—but even before the snakebite, I had lost my nerve to write. As I thought about that, along with the journal entry about Jesus and the image of the hourglass on the snake’s skin, some inner block got shaken loose. It was as though something holy had broken through. After a two-year delay, within two weeks, I mailed a text to one of the composers. The other text is underway, and once again I can walk outdoors, free of anxiety, even in the evening, again without a flashlight.

What about you? Many of us have been hurt by touch. Some of us have been healed by it. Who or what touches you now? Who or what is in need of your touch? Be aware of the tactile this week. If you want, write about a particular experience with touch—but first, invite Jesus to be there with you as you write.

"Source of All Healing"

Words by Angier Brock

Music By Michael John Trotta


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