The Dispatch: More from CWR...

The Mystery of God and the Lessons of the Desert

On the Readings for Sunday, March 24, 2019, the Third Sunday of Lent

Detail from "Burning Bush" (17th century) by Sébastien Bourdon [Wikipedia Commons]

• Ex. 3:1-8a, 13-15
• Ps 103: 1-2, 3-4, 6-7, 8, 11
• 1 Cor 10:1-6, 10-12
• Luke 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 Promised 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.

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

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

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.


  1. Your Sunday readings commentaries offer insight. Today the unexpected dividend is realization of mistakenly having prepared my sermon on the A cycle and the woman at the well. Chance may work in our favor. Or not as warned by Christ in Lk 13. His message be prepared. Before the correction I prepared my sermon on Christ luring the woman to “drink from the spiritual rock” who is Christ. You build your interior awareness commentary on the desert encounter where God reveals Himself to Moses, I Am Who Am. Hosea 2, 14 is a favorite verse, “Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak to her heart”. My final theme Desert wilderness Hosea and Paul’s words on the “spiritual drink” that is Christ.

  2. In addition to the name revealed by God, should we also be struck by the contrast between what Moses first says and then what God says?

    Moses answers “HERE I am Lord;” the Lord answers “I AM who am.” In his finite-ness, Moses, standing on holy ground, is “here” in measurable space and time. In His infinite-ness, the Lord is simply “I AM”, the subsisting Creator who transcends, pervades and grounds all of totally-contingent existence.

    Then, in John’s Gospel, so many phrases in the Discourses of Christ, the Word of God, echo the great “I AM…”, as part of both a sentence in human language and as the transcendent name repeated.

    Small wonder that John’s Gospel came so much later than the earlier and different synoptics. John was the only one of the apostles who personally witnessed both the Transfiguration and the Crucifixion. Like the mystic Julian of Norwich, perhaps (who after her one-day experience spent 25 years writing her Revelations), it took some time for John to take it all in.

    Here’s a list (of :I am”) from the Gospel of John: 6:35,41,51; 8:12,16,18,21,46,48; 9:5; 10:6,9,11,14; 11:25; 12:26,32,47; 13:33,36,; 14:3,11,20: 15:1,5; 16:28; 17:11,13,24.

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. The Mystery of God and the Lessons of the Desert -

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.