by Fr. Pat McNulty.
Have you ever wished for a mystical experience? The following is a reflection on the story of Moses and the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15), the First Reading for March 11th, the Third Sunday in Lent.
I thought for sure I would have at least one mystical experience out there. If not, then why go all the way out into the Sinai Desert alone to an abandoned cave in the first place?
I had always wanted to do that—go into the desert. I suppose it was because the desert had been an intimate part of our experience of God from the beginning, in both the Old and New Testaments. So the desert was a part of my faith too.
I finally had my chance when I lived in Jerusalem back in the mid-70s. Of course, humble as I am (ahem), I knew I wasn’t going to the Sinai as another Moses. So I didn’t expect anything as unrestrained from God as a fiery bush on the mountain.
But one night there was one! And at that moment, I may not have thought I was Moses but, I must admit, when I saw my burning bush, I kinda thought he and I might have something special in common.
Hey, if you were a few miles from where Moses saw the burning bush, and you had all those biblical desert memories to urge you on, what would you think if you suddenly saw an unexplained fire ten or twenty yards from the entrance of your cave late at night?
Well, truth be told, it turned out to be an ordinary fire that had a very ordinary explanation.
Kindling is very hard to come by in the desert. If you want to make a fire, you have to wander around and gather anything that might burn. That day I had eventually gathered a nice little pile of burnable stuff, which I put about ten or twenty yards away from my cave. I had planned to use it the next day to bake a kind of pita bread.
But that evening I hadn’t properly extinguished my fire. So later on, the desert wind blew its embers onto my pile of kindling. Voila, at midnight, my own burning bush!
Or so I thought until I discovered the next morning what had really happened. Nothing mystical. Just another "same old, same old." (Thanks a bunch, Moses!)
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this "burning bush phenomenon" is very common to believers. Many of us have an almost neurotic desire for the unusual, for the extraordinary, for the mystical elements of the faith.
And we don’t have to go to the Sinai Desert to discover this in ourselves. Indeed our Judaeo-Christian faith-history is filled with the extraordinary and the mystical.
Lent itself culminates in the almost "mystical" moments of Holy Thursday and Good Friday. And then at the height of that mystery, the Easter Vigil, we can easily imagine Moses and the burning bush as we proclaim the Light of the world, the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Extraordinary and mystical events indeed!
But outside of Holy Week, for many of us, the rest of Lent is pretty much, "Same old, same old."
Yet time proves that our liturgical life does indeed have a mysterious and holy power.
For as Lent "does its job" year after year, we see more and more clearly that in the life of Faith nothing is the same and nothing is old. Everything is new in God.
The greatest danger to the modesty of faith is a craving for the unusual, for an emotional smoke screen behind which we try desperately to make faith do something it was never meant to do.
For faith is not a way out of life; faith is a very special way into life. Our Faith has always been about life lived out in a wonderful, everyday, messy, mysterious way.
We only go looking for "burning bushes" when our hearts are not satisfied by the fire of everyday faith.
I didn’t learn that in the Sinai desert either; I only discovered it there. I actually learned it in the desert of Lent, year after year after year.
In Lent many of us start out with great plans, which end up like the ashes in the fire of the Easter Vigil. We never quite make it all the way to that mystical moment when, in the light of Easter, we are so dazzling that nobody can stand to be around us.
Notice the word, we. "We are so dazzling." That one word is the issue: we are not the focus of Lent, and the light of Easter is not about us.
Ours is the humble task of entering the desert of Lent every year in order to be taught once again by the Holy Spirit, in a thousand different ways, just how fragile and fickle and wounded we really are.
We go into Lent to savour in every cell of our body and every place in our psyche that, without the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are done for.
We go into the desert of Lent to be bathed in the merciful blood of God’s own Son, the blood which is now mixed with our own everyday blood, sweat, and tears.
Lent is all about God’s love and mercy; it is not about what we can manage to do in order to "earn" it.
Indeed, what we have to do is respond to God’s love and mercy in our flesh, in our everyday life.
In fact, the reason why we need to discipline ourselves and step aside from so many distractions and addictions is so that our hearts can hear the intensity of God’s desire to love us and be merciful to us.
That’s why we pray and do penance. For Lent is about the intensity, the pitch, the fire of God’s love and mercy—for me.
Thus we need to walk with Jesus those Stations of his Cross so that we can see God’s love and mercy in the flesh.
And we fast from this or that pleasure so that our minds and bodies can feel the hunger our souls have for God and cry out for Christ to assuage that hunger.
By the end of Lent, perhaps that’s why it sometimes feels like the "same old, same old." Nothing special, nothing "holy," nothing mystical, because that’s the only way the Holy Spirit can make certain that we modern-day activists come to the feast of Love, the feast of Mercy, the Resurrection, with a humility and gratitude that is beyond our own capacity to "make it happen."
Like at the burning bush, all we can really "do" is to take off our shoes and bow, because the place on which we have stood for forty days and forty nights is holy ground.
P.S. Isn’t it marvellous how, in our Faith, the saints of the Old Testament can teach us something so wondrous about the New? Thank you, St. Moses.
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