O sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.
Today’s O Antiphon invokes the Lord (Adonai), the God of Israel, who appears to Moses and reveals God’s own identity to the prophet in a direct and personal way. When many people think of the identity of the God who reveals Godself to Moses in the burning bush on Sinai, they think of the line from Exodus 3:14 “God said to Moses, ‘I am Who I Am.'” At this point it seems sufficient to accept this as the name of God. But the theophany continues; the name of God has not yet been fully revealed.
If we keep reading, we note that God explains further:
God also said to Moses: ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites,
“The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you”:
This is my name forever,
and this is my title for all generations (Exodus 3:15).
Rather than the Western, Greek, philosophical “I am,” what Thomas Aquinas will theologize as God’s interchangeable name and identity (esse = “being”), we see that God explains God’s own identity in relational terms. God is the one who has been there for all of Moses’s ancestors, for all times, for all generations. Who God is can only be understood in terms of for whom God is. And like for Moses, God is the Lord (Adonai) who is there for us!
But it doesn’t stop there. The identity of the Lord, Adonai, who reveled Godself to Moses in the burning bush explains that in addition to having been and always being there for Moses and his fellow Israelites, God explains that the Lord hears the cries of the poor (Ps 34). The next two lines of the Book of Exodus (vv 16-17) convey this when God explains to Moses that the suffering of the enslaved Israelites has not gone unnoticed by the Lord.
“I have given heed to you and what has been done to you in Egypt. I declare that I will bring you up out of the misery of Egypt,” God explains.
Last year, I listened to the weekly New Yorker podcast after I began reading James Carroll’s lead article this week on Pope Francis. The former priest and best-selling author, Carroll, participated in a conversation about the pope who is making such an impression on the world stage. In passing Carroll, who defended the idea that Pope Francis’s so-called “symbolic actions” are in fact much more significant than the demeaning qualifier symbolic means to suggest, made the point that our whole faith as Christians (and this is true for our Jewish sisters and brothers) is not centered on a God who first sees sin. Rather, our God is a God who hears the cry of the poor and first recognizes our suffering.
As we get closer to the Solemnity of the Incarnation at Christmas, we should take close note of this truth as it appears to us in Scripture. Far too often people hold the “Mel Gibson” approach to Christmas, projecting the suffering of the Passion onto the Birth of the Lord — Jesus entered this world because we had to be “saved” from sin.
No. The Word Became Flesh because God loves us and wants to draw near to us (the relational “God of your Fathers” has sent you…) and hears our cries of lament, of suffering, of injustice, of pain, of loss, and of the experience of sin.
Yes, through the Incarnation we have indeed been redeemed, but our sin is not what God first sees. The suffering of individuals and communities is what God first sees!
We know this because Jesus proclaims this at the beginning of his public ministry, reading from and fulfilling the oracle of the Prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s Favor (Luke 4:18-19).
Nowhere does the Lord say, “I have come because you have screwed up.” Nowhere does the Lord say, “Your sin is what I’m most concerned with.” Nowhere does the Lord say, “O happy fault!”
Instead, the Lord, the one who reveals Godself to Moses on Sinai in the burning bush, comes because of divine love and in response to the suffering of those in the world. Our task, our call as Christians, is to do what Pope Francis has been reminding us to do and what Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, demonstrated with his life, death, and resurrection.
We need to become more God-like, become like the Lord who hears the cry of the poor, responds to the suffering in the world, and draws near to announce the good news that we’re going to do something about it!