The Divine Name and the Mystery of God

On the Readings for Sunday, March 3rd, the Third Sunday of Lent

• 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

When asked why they climb, professional mountaineers often give varied but interconnected reasons. They mention the challenge of doing something difficult and demanding, a deepening understanding of themselves, and, paradoxically, a loss of self-centeredness. In a similar way, those who spend time living alone in the wilderness can experience the same contemplative moments leading to a more honest and truthful view of themselves and others.

Mountains and desert play a prominent role throughout the Bible, not just on a physical plane, but on a spiritual level as well. Mountains were considered holy, ancient, and eternal; they were where God often met His prophets and people, as seen in last week’s Gospel reading describing the Transfiguration. The desert, as harsh as it was, often represented a place of safety, discipline, and waiting for the promises of God to come to fulfillment. If the mountain was where God would sometimes reveal Himself, the desert was where man’s trust in God was tested and increased.

Today’s reading from Exodus describes Moses, many years after leaving the Pharoah’s court in disgrace, tending sheep in the desert. Like another shepherd, David, he was toiling in anonymity—until he received the call of God at Horeb, the mountain of God. Also known as Mount Sinai, this was the same mountain that would shelter the prophet Elijah when he fled from Jezebel (1 Kings 19:8) and would, of course, be where Moses received the Commandments from God (Ex 19-20)

Moses’s encounter with the burning bush was as dramatic as it was mysterious. At first he was curious and then, upon realizing whose presence he was in, overcome with awe and fear, hiding his face. In remarking upon this encounter, the Catechism provides a simple but urgent lesson perfectly suited for Lent: “Faced with God’s fascinating and mysterious presence, man discovers his own insignificance” (CCC 208). If there is anything clear about the name uttered before Moses, it is its mysterious nature: “In revealing his mysterious name, YHWH (‘I AM HE WHO IS’, ‘I AM WHO AM’ or ‘I AM WHO I AM’), God says who he is and by what name he is to be called. This divine name is mysterious just as God is mystery. It is at once a name revealed and something like the refusal of a name, and hence it better expresses God as what he is—infinitely above everything that we can understand or say…” (CCC 206). 

Although God is mystery, in giving His name He reveals that He is personal, loving, and faithful. Having revealed His name to Moses, “He has made known his ways to Moses”, as today’s Psalm proclaims. He desires the salvation of His people and He provides a means for that salvation. And so Moses is called from tending the sheep of his father-in-law to tending a new flock, the people of God, leading them out of Egypt, through the desert, and, after forty years, to the edge of the Promises Land. 

Today’s epistle makes a sacramental connection between the prophet Moses and the greatest prophet, Jesus Christ. The Israelites had experienced a sort of baptism (crossing the Red Sea) and Eucharist (miraculous manna and water); these prefigured the sacraments of the New Covenant established by Jesus, the New Moses. And yet the Israelites kept succumbing to idolatry. Saint Paul exhorted his readers in Corinth—who belonged to a church that was struggling with every type of scandal and sin—to learn from the mistakes made by the Israelites, for “these things happened as examples for us…” The lessons of the desert, if not learned and heeded, go to waste when those who think they are standing securely do not take care of their spiritual lives.

Lent is a microcosm of the mountains and deserts that every Christian travels between baptism and death. As the Holy Spirit helps us to understand ourselves better, we begin to recognize that our worth can be found in nothing else but the person of Jesus Christ. And He asks that we, in turn, bear the fruit of His life in us, so that we might give witness to the mystery of the God who is.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the March 11, 2007, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.