Father Donald Senior, CP

March 24: Third Sunday of Lent

March 20, 2019

What is your name?

Ex 3:1-8a, 13-15; Ps 103:1-2, 3-4, 6-7, 8, 11; 1 Cor 10:1-6, 10-12; Lk 13:1-9

The first reading for this Sunday is one of the most famous passages in all the Bible. While tending his father-in-law’s flock in the Sinai desert, Moses sees a startling apparition. An “angel of the Lord” appears to the future leader of Israel amid flames engulfing a bush, but with the bush not being consumed by the flames. 

When Moses goes closer to see this vision, the Lord himself speaks to him, calling out his name, “Moses! Moses!”

This encounter between God and Moses is loaded with fundamental biblical lore. First of all, Moses is reminded that he is encountering the awe-inspiring, transcendent God of Israel, the God who created the universe. Moses is instructed to take off his sandals because he is “standing on holy ground” — the earth itself made sacred by God’s presence. 

I think of the dramatic gesture of St. Pope John Paul II who, when visiting a country for the first time, would get down on his knees and kiss the ground — a ground made holy by the people of God who lived there.

Another key element of the story is the revelation of God’s identity. The Lord who speaks to him is “the God of your ancestors,” “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob,” the faithful God who walked with Abraham and, over time, fashioned a people. 

Encountering God in such a fashion leads Moses to “hide his face” and not dare look at God. A recurring biblical motif is that God’s beauty and power are so overwhelming that, like the moth before the flame, a human being “could not see the face of God and live.” 

Yet this all-powerful God speaks to Moses because he is moved by the suffering of his people: “I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers, so I know well what they are suffering. Therefore, I have come down to rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians.”

Here we find one of the most fundamental biblical intuitions about the identity of God. The God who is beyond our imagining, the God who created the universe, the God who ultimately holds all being in his hands hears the cries of oppressed slaves in Egypt and is moved to rescue them. 

This deep current runs through the entire Bible and will rise to the surface in Jesus’ own mission of compassion and healing: God hears the cry of the poor. The litmus test for authentic love of God is how one cares for the most vulnerable among us.

The God portrayed in this foundational reading from Exodus is a liberating God whose loving intent is to free people from oppression and slavery and lead them into a “good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

God’s work of liberation is to be carried out through the leadership of Moses (and all who would follow him). To take up this task, Moses needs God’s authorization: “But when I go to the Israelites … if they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ What am I to tell them?” 

In traditional societies, names are sacred and reveal the character of those who bear it. A remnant of that is in the custom of taking a new name — and therefore a new identity — when we are confirmed. God’s own name is steeped in mystery: “I am who am.”

The four Hebrew letters of this name resist easy translation: “I am who am,” emphasizing God’s eternal being, or, “I am the one who is always with you,” emphasizing God’s protective and loving presence with each generation of his people. This latter nuance may be in play here in this scene. God reaffirms he is the God of each generation of patriarchs, “This is my name forever; thus am I to be remembered through all generations.”

Hearing this biblical passage in Lent calls us back to the fundamentals of our faith. God is a mystery beyond our understanding. But this same God loves us and wants to lead us to freedom.


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