Daily Homily: When You Lift Up The Son of Man

Fifth Week of Lent, Tuesday

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Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 102:2-3, 16-18, 19-21
John 8:21-30

Today we learn about the New Testament fulfillment of an Old Testament episode. The fulfillment comes about through the Cross and through Jesus’ Ascension into heaven.

In the Book of Numbers, the people of Israel complain against God and Moses. They are tired of wandering in the desert, eating the same thing each day, and they complain about the manna, the bread from heaven, and the lack of water in the desert. In his justice, God punishes the people allowing fiery serpents to attack them; but, in his mercy, God offers a path of salvation to the people. The people repent of their sin and God responds by commanding Moses to make a bronze serpent, set it on a pole, and have the people look at it if they are bitten so that they will live. As a side note, the image of the bronze serpent reappears int he time of the divided kingdom. It had to be destroyed by the good king Hezekiah, because the sons of Israel began to burn incense to it, worshiping it and thus violating the Law (2 Kings 18:4). The image was not to be confused with God himself, nor did it have healing power. It was only a sign that invited faith in God and pointed symbolically to salvation of the incarnate Word (CCC, 2130).

In the Gospel of John, Jesus uses the image of being lifted up three times. The first is a call to faith, the second is a revelation of Jesus’ divinity, the third speaks about the consequence of Jesus being lifted up.

The first use of the image of being lifted up refers explicitly to the serpent in the desert: «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’ being lifted up on the Cross and being lifted up into heaven are invitations to faith: we believe that Jesus died for our sins and for our salvation and that he now reigns at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us as our trustworthy and merciful high-priest.

The second use of the image is found in today’s Gospel: «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 has taught me» (8:28). Jesus refers to the revelation of God’s name to Moses: «I Am Who Am» (Exodus 3:14), and identifies himself with God by revealing himself as the Son of God. The lifting up on the Cross ultimately reveals the merciful love of God the Father for all humanity.

Finally, after his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus once again uses the image of being lifted up: «And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself» (John 12:32). God desires that all men and women be gathered into the Church. God «calls all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of the Church» (CCC, 1). Jesus’ death on the Cross lifts the ancient curse and gives birth to the Church through blood and water. Just as Eve was formed from Adam’s side, the Church is fashioned from Christ’s side. Jesus now reigns in heaven and prepares a place for his bride, the Church.

We can understand the image of the bronze serpent more deeply by seeing how Jesus’ Cross becomes the new Tree of life. The serpent represents both sin and its curse; the bronze serpent mounted on the pole transforms the curse and becomes a sign of blessing and salvation. Likewise, «Christ redeems us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us» (Gal 3:13). By his death on the Cross, Christ lifted the curses of the Old Covenant. «This act enabled the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant, held back for centuries because of the curse, to pour forth upon Israel and the world as a result» (Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, New Testament, Galatians 3:13).

And so, when we contemplate the Cross we see both the effect of the sin of the old Adam (the curse of death) and the victory over sin of the new Adam (the blessing of salvation). We contemplate the effects of our sins and also the path to eternal salvation, dying with Christ so as to rise with him.

Readers may contact Father Jason Mitchell at mitchelljason2011@gmail.com.

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Jason Mitchell

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