"When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM"

"So Jesus said to them,
'When you lift up the Son of Man,
then you will realize that I AM,
and that I do nothing on my own,
but I say only what the Father taught me.
The one who sent me is with me.
He has not left me alone,
because I always do what is pleasing to him.'
Because he spoke this way, many came to believe in him."
(John 8:28-30)
Today's readings contain what is, seemingly, one of the oddest passages in the Hebrew Bible: the story of the Bronze Serpent in Numbers Chapter 21. To be honest, for many years I struggled with what seemed to be a rather arbitrary punishment and cure for the people's sins there on the Red Sea road.

Of course, this passage has important ties to the New Testament which we will talk about in a moment. But first, lets consider it by itself and see if we can make some sense of what God is trying to do with Moses and the people.

A Forgetful People

The Israelites are, throughout the story of the Exodus, a forgetful people. It seems that every time God performs wonders in their midst, they almost immediately forget what he has done for them and return to their complaining. This is another one of those episodes.

Just prior to this, in Numbers 21:1-3, God had granted them victory over the king of Arad. Yet after they set out again from Mount Hor along the Red Sea road, they quit their rejoicing and resumed their grumbling.

Don't judge them too harshly; we do the same thing all the time.

The Lord blesses our life in some way and we immediately turn around and fall back into the same patterns of life that had us begging for his blessing in the first place.

A Visible Sign of their Sin

As a result of their sin, the Lord creates a visible sign to remind them: the serpents. But what do serpents have to do with grumbling about food? What is God trying to tell them?

Maybe it occurred to you already...but where else do we see a serpent bringing people death?

The story of the Fall, of course.

Adam and Eve are tempted by the serpent into, first, doubting the goodness of God's providence for them and, second, believing that they can be like gods themselves: the sins of doubt and pride. Through that original sin comes death.

The  elements of doubt and pride are both present in the people's response in Numbers 21:5. They accuse God of leading them there to die (doubt) and believe that they know better than God what kind of food they need (pride).  So God sends them a fitting visible sign--the literal serpents represent the great serpent that both tempted their first parents and continues to tempt them.

It is interesting to also note the parallel between the people's sin here and the sin of Moses and Aaron in Numbers 20:2-13. When the people demand water, the Lord instructs them to command the rock to yield its waters. But instead of commanding the rock in the Lord's name (pride), Moses strikes it twice (doubt) with his staff.

To Remember is to Live

The remedy by which God delivers the people seems to be even stranger than the punishment: the bronze serpent on a pole. Think about it, though...what is the root of their problem?

Forgetfulness and hardheartedness.

The bronze serpent allows them to literally gaze upon their sin and remember God's goodness. To remember is to live, to forget is to die. God demands no great feat or sacrifice, just a willingness to look upon their sin and to recognize that he is Lord.

A Visible Sign of the Crucifixion

For us as Christians, of course, we see something more in this story. The episode of the bronze serpent on the pole is a type, a visible sign written in history, of the redemption that Christ wins on the cross. In the brutal and ignoble punishment of crucifixion, Jesus becomes a living image of our own sin, as St. Paul explains in his second letter to the Corinthians:
"For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him"
(2 Cor 5:21)
We too, are called to look upon our sin, remember God's goodness and live.

When I am Lifted Up

In the Gospel reading, Jesus declares that his death will be the fullest sign of who he really is...that when the Son of Man is lifted up "you will realize that I AM". The meaning of that statement was clear to his audience: I AM is the name that God reveals to Moses.

Jesus is telling them that, when he is lifted up, they will know that he is God.

On Sunday, we saw the raising of Lazarus, the clearest proof yet of Jesus' divinity: his power over life and death. Yet he says that it will not be this, but his death that will be the real sign of his true identity. This foreshadows the confession of the Centurion in Mark's Gospel, where he proclaims Jesus as truly the Son of God on Mt. Calvary (the first person in Mark's Gospel to explicitly do so). But I think it also foreshadows something else, as well:

The Holy Eucharist.

I will Draw all Men to Myself

 In the Holy Eucharist, we have the bloodless re-presentation of the one, only sacrifice of Christ. In a mysterious way, the crucifixion becomes present for us. Yet the brutality and ignominy have been replaced by beauty and reverence.

The true bronze serpent is lifted up before us--not as a sign of death, but as a sign of life.

In the Eucharist, we certainly remember that our sins brought the Lord to the cross. But more importantly, we celebrate the glory of his victory in the Resurrection. We look upon him and live.


Anamnesis in Greek means 'not forgetting' -- the opposite of amnesia. Specifically in Christian theology, it refers to the portion of the Eucharistic Prayer where we explicitly remember God's work of salvation through the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus the Lord. It is an essential part of every Eucharistic Prayer--we must see and remember.

We, too, are a forgetful people. But we are called in every Eucharist to remember.

We are in a strange and difficult time where most of us are unable to attend Holy Mass in person. The Holy Sacrifice is coming to us via live streams or recordings. But even though we cannot be present there with Lord, we still have an opportunity to remember--to unite ourselves spiritually with him in his sacrifice.

To look upon him, remember and live.

Act of Spiritual Communion 
“I wish, my Lord, to receive you with the purity, humility, and devotion with which your most holy mother received you, with the spirit and fervor of the saints.”

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