By Thomas Kincaid
It’s Day 11 of Christmas. These twelve days are almost over. Certainly our secular lives have mostly come crushing back (despite the impending Epiphany celebrations). So it goes.
Hopefully, by grace, the absurdly glorious abundance of Christmas is not yet too far faded from our memories. As an agent of that grace, the Daily Office readings in this season tend to break from their lectio continuo patterns to provide us one daily gift after another. There are so many — one piled upon another — that they almost feel like spiritual baubles. We find an abundance of glittering little tales telling us of the wonders of God coming to be with us.
This morning’s radiant gem is Moses, the voice of God, and the burning bush.
This blog post won’t be the first to point out why this story is told in Christmastide. Its connection to the Incarnation — God with us — is fairly straightforward. Building upon that theme, starting at least as early as Gregory of Nyssa, Christians have also seen the connection between the Theotokos and the burning bush. There are numerous icons making use of that connection, including the version at the top of this essay.
But the burning bush as a prefiguring of the Incarnation is more than just a doctrinal illustration. The dialogue between Moses and God calls us to a particular kind of relationship with God, who has come to be one of us.
“The place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Ex. 3:5b). As the biblical narrative develops, this mountain will become famous — God will use it as a locus of much of his action on earth. But at this first scriptural mention, it is just a place in “the west side of the wilderness” where “Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law” (v. 1). To describe a place as wilderness is to describe it by what it lacks. This place where God acts is only remarkable in that there is nothing developed, nothing human-made, there.
And yet. “The place . . . is holy ground.” Made holy how? The only way anything ever is. Horeb (which is probably the same mountain as Sinai) becomes holy because God is there.
Our world before Jesus’ nativity was mostly remarkable for what it lacked: the goodness and plenty of Eden, a place to walk and talk with God. To be sure, God showed up before the burning bush, but he wasn’t part of his creation. Creation was not reconsecrated as holy, not until now.
In his Incarnation, God has reendowed his creation with his own likeness, making us again a holy humanity walking upon a holy ground.
“Then the Lord said, ‘I have surely seen’” (v. 7a). Psychologists are quick to point out that being seen is a critical need of a human being: to be seen, to be validated as a person — and to have our experience, good or bad, given the weight of someone else’s attention. This is why we fly to weddings and graduations and funerals and the rest of it. It’s why we stay up late, ask one more probing question, talk to one more person at the church meeting. We do it all to see.
Seeing is core to Jesus’ incarnate ministry. He tells Nathanael: “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you” (John 1:48). He saw Simon Peter and his brother, Andrew, working on the Sea of Galilee (Matt. 4:18). The disciples call one another by asking their prospective apostolic brethren to “come and see” (e.g., John 1:46). From the cross, the Lord saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved (John 19:26). The list goes on and on.
God saw the trials of his people in Egypt. In Christ, we have our fundamental need to be seen met by God, who sees us face to face.
But Moses said to God, “Who am I?” (v. 11). If being seen is a fundamental need, then “who am I?” is a fundamental question of human life. Philosophers ask it in abstract; adults look to more and less helpful sources for an answer; children ask it of their parents in every interaction of every day.
Feeling understandably insecure with his new commission as God’s representative to Pharaoh and his new vocation as rescuer, Moses asks God “Who am I?” To the attentive reader, God appears to reply with a non-answer: “I will be with you.” But, of course, that’s a definitive answer to Moses’ question — and our reiteration of the same.
“Who am I?” You are who you are because “I [the Lord] am with you.” We are who we are not by where or to whom we are born, no by what we achieve, and not by what the world knows us for. We are who we are because we are with God this Christmastide.
Being with God is no guarantee of much except the thing that matters. That is to say, it is not a promise that things will be easy (or hard). There’s no promise there will be plenty (or lack). But it is a promise that God will be with us, and that this relationship defines our whole existence. We are who we are because we are with God, who came to walk among us.
So, even as the crush of work priorities delayed from December ensues, and the recovery from the busy-ness and the challenges of the holidays take root, enjoy these jewels the Lord is pouring out from his Scriptures each day. Aside from their obvious beauty, they show us what it means to receive God’s gift of himself in full anew this year. In the holy child, we have a God who makes the world holy, who sees us, and who makes us who we are by his very presence.