Saturday, March 2, 2013



The biblical accounts of Moses’ life tell us that it was divided into three periods of forty years (summarized in Acts 7:20-43); rabbinic literature was also fond of meditating on these three periods: forty years in Egypt, forty years in Midian, and forty years serving Israel. So Moses, often depicted as a figure of Christ, becomes a good subject of meditation during our forty days of Lent. I am indebted to Carlo Martini, S.J., (Through Moses to Jesus, Ave Maria Press, 1988, pp 334-34) for many of the following thoughts.

The middle period was spent in the wilderness tending the sheep of his father-in law Jethro. At the end of this period of forty years Moses has his famous vision of the burning bush.

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ (Ex. 3:1-5)

Moses goes to investigate the burning bush to try to understand it, to put into one or another category of phenomena that he is familiar with. But the voice tells him “Take off your sandals, this is holy ground. You’re not going to approach this mystery on your terms but on mine!”

When was the last time you tried walking barefoot over rocky ground? It’s always a tentative operation, because you never know what’s coming next. Ouch! Martini paraphrases it this way: “Take your sandals off, because you are not going to come to me by enclosing me in your own ideas. You are not the one to integrate me into your personal synthesis. Instead, I want to fit you into my plan.”


I once heard someone make this remark about a fellow Christian: “His problem is that he thinks he has God in his pocket.” Having God in your pocket is dangerous business, as the Pharisees found out. They’re a perfect example of it, in fact. The God that they worshiped obeyed all of their laws scrupulously, including their Sabbath regulations! Some Christians have God safely trapped between the covers of their bible, others have God imprisoned securely in the tabernacle. Dangerous stuff!

With God safely in my pocket I quickly run afoul of the initiatives of the Lord, who always wants to fit me into his plan for the world. Maybe this is part of what the old rabbi meant when he said

"God is not nice, God is not your uncle; God is and earthquake."

As I was reflecting on these ideas recently, the father of one of my students died of cancer. If I showed you the faces of our hundred-some sophomores, you could probably pick him out easily. He is numb, devastated, swimming hard to keep his head above the flood waters of grief. He certainly does not have God in his pocket! I pray that he’ll soon come to realized that he is being carried around safe in God’s loving pocket.


Back to Moses. God tells him to remove his sandals “for this is holy ground.” Imagine Moses’ confusion when he heard those words! He’d been living out in this deserted area tending sheep for forty years, this untamed, trackless abode of jackals, a place of desolation and aridity where no one would want to settle down and live. This desert where he had felt so lonely and wretched and frustrated for four decades – is he to believe that this is holy ground? This is God’s presence? This is the place where God reveals himself?

But it has to be that way. Why? Simply because God seeks Moses where Moses is, even if it is a place of desolation, the midbar, devoid of all resources. For Moses, precisely this is holy ground! Had God gone looking to encounter Moses in Pharaoh’s court or in Goshen, the encounter would never have happened. God met Moses where he was living and working, where he was feeling sorry for himself and wondering if his life had no more purpose than tending sheep. But because God appeared in the burning bush, Moses’ wilderness became holy ground, the place of encounter.

I’m going to concelebrate the funeral in the abbey church this afternoon for my student’s dad before the body is shipped back to Nigeria for burial. I want to be there for the family, especially for my student, and to pray for them that as they stand there in the wilderness of grief and loss, that they will somehow hear the voice that Moses heard in the wilderness reassuring them: “You are on holy ground!”
Maybe I'll take my shoes off, too.


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