Third Sunday of Lent (Feb. 28, 2016)

Our First Reading for this 3rd Sunday of Lent is the account in Exodus,chapter three, of Moses’ encounter with the burning bush. I’m going totalk about the passage in some detail, so you might like to open the textand follow along. As the chapter begins, Moses has led the flock of hisfather-in-law, Jethro across the desert. Jethro is identified as the priestof Midian. Living with a priest will have given Moses a religious frame ofreference. Religious rites and sacrifices would have been part of hiseveryday experience, so the idea of encountering a god in the desertwould not have seemed utterly strange to him.

Notice it is not a flock but the flock of Jethro. This tells us a gooddeal about Moses already. Jethro is a pastoralist, so his flock constitutesvirtually the entirety of his wealth. Despite the fact that his son-in-law isa foreigner, Jethro has trusted him to take his precious flock not only intothe desert, but across it. There could be no stronger testimony toMoses’ trustworthiness and competence.

While leading the flock, Moses comes upon Horeb, the mountain ofGod. “Mountain of God” is probably a title given to Horeb retrospectivelybecause of the events that will be described in the passage. “There anangel of the Lord appeared to Moses in fire flaming out of a bush.” Thereference to an angel here is a conventional courtesy, employed becauseit was thought presumptuous to refer to God directly, but there is nodoubt that it is really the Lord himself who is present in the flames.

Moses notices that while the bush is burning, it is not beingconsumed. Jewish commentators have found the bush to be symbolic ofthe Jewish people, who have suffered terribly throughout their longhistory, but who have always endured. When he sees the bush, Mosesdecides, “I must go over to look at this remarkable sight, and see why thebush is not burned.” It is significant that Moses has to “go over” to thebush. Clearly, it appears at some distance from himself and he has go outof his way to investigate. His decision to do so testifies to Moses’ innatecuriosity. Another man might have thought, “Bushes, burning orotherwise, are none of my business. My responsibility is to look afterthese sheep.” Such a man might have ignored the bush and kept walking.This might cause us to reflect that even the most powerfulmanifestations of the Divine in our lives will only matter if we notice themand choose to engage with them. Further, it is significant that Godevidently wants to leave us with a choice in the matter. True, a bush thatis burning without being consumed is unusual, but it is not overwhelming.

If the Lord had chosen to, he could have manifested himself to Moses insome titanic manner that would have compelled attention. The burningbush could also be evidence that the Lord “knows his man.” God knowsjust the sort of thing that will engage Moses’ interest. God knows each ofus as well. When he approaches the bush, God’s personal knowledge ofMoses is confirmed when he calls out to him by name, and waits forMoses to reply, “Here I am.” Again, Moses is allowed the choice ofresponding or not. The option he chooses requires courage. So might itbe in our lives of faith.

Now God says, “Come no nearer! Remove the sandals from yourfeet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.” This is less a demandfor deference by God than an act of divine graciousness. The Lord iskindly telling Moses, who still has no idea who he is talking to, the properway to behave. If you were attending a diplomatic reception, and wereabout to chat with a woman who, unbeknownst to you, was a queen,you’d appreciate being clued in beforehand. The Lord continues, “I amthe God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the Godof Jacob.” A better translation here would be the singular, “father.” “Iam the God of your father.” At this time, every extended familyworshipped its own God. To say to Moses, “I am the God of your father”was to make a specific claim. The rest of the Lord’s statement is newinformation, revealing something remarkable about God. Moses is beingtold that the gods of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and of his own father are infact one God this God. Only now does Moses, who has beenextraordinarily bold to this point, hide his face. He does so because heknows the family tradition that one must not look at their God.

The Lord tells Moses that he has witnessed the affliction of hispeople in Egypt and that he knows well what they are suffering. InHebrew, the word “knows” implies not only intellectual knowledge, butalso empathy and understanding. God is expressing appreciation of themagnitude of the people’s suffering and engagement with it. Therefore,God says, I have come down to rescue them, “and lead them out of thatland into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

First, notice that while God will call upon Moses to act on his behalf, it isultimately God who will be leading the people out of captivity. Second,the description of the Promised Land as spacious and flowing with milk isobviously intended for a pastoral people. “Flowing” would moreaccurately be translated as “oozing” and implies that the udders of theanimals would be filled to bursting with milk so that it would literally beoozing out of them. A description intended for farmers would doubtlessbe different. For them, God might have described topsoil a foot deep andblack as night and rains that never failed.

As soon as God instructs Moses to tell the people of theirimpending deliverance, Moses asks God what name for God he should givethem. This is because tradition dictated that any new pronouncementfrom a god should be accompanied and validated by a new divine name.God replies, “I am who am.” Whole libraries of books have been writtenabout these words, and we haven’t time to linger over them here. It isenough for now to say that I AM is a name for God that the people wouldhave difficulty understanding. So, God graciously gives Moses anothername to share with the people that they can more easily grasp thatthey can literally relate to: “Say to the Israelites: the Lord, the God ofyour fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob,has sent me to you.” As we have seen, that all these gods are in fact oneGod will be news to the Israelites, and so will constitute for them a newDivine name. God declares, “This is my name forever; thus am I to beremembered through all generations.” Thus it is made clear that thename, and the relationship that God has embraced will endure forever.

And so ends our passage. It is unusual for us to dedicate an entire reflection to just one of the readings for a particular Sunday. Perhaps having done so here will serve to remind us of the infinite riches of Scripture, and of how prayerful reflection on God’s Word can enhance our celebration of the holy season of Lent.

Fr. Charles Gordon, C.S.C.

Rev. Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C., is co-director of the Garaventa Center for Catholic Intellectual Life and American Culture at the University of Portland. He writes and records a regular blog called “Fractio Verbi.”

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