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Exodus, Lent, and becoming a true nation

The Book of Exodus raises important questions about our contemporary American situation.

"Exodus" (1952-66) by Marc Chagall (Wikipedia)

Ten years ago, I began a most extraordinary Lent by walking up the Aventine Hill to the Basilica of Santa Sabina on the first day of the Roman station church pilgrimage – an eight-week journey that led to the book Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches, co-authored with my friend Elizabeth Lev and my son, Stephen. Liz Lev is the premier Anglophone art-and-architecture guide in the Eternal City, and her masterful descriptions of the Roman stational churches confirm the truth suggested by Stephen’s evocative photographs (best appreciated in the e-book edition of Roman Pilgrimage): beauty opens windows into the deep truths of Catholic faith. My contributions to the book – reflections on the liturgical readings of each day from Ash Wednesday through the Octave of Easter – helped make that Lent a particularly rewarding one, as writing those meditations made me dig deeper into the readings from Mass and the Divine Office.

Every Lent, the Church reads the first 20 chapters of the Book of Exodus in its daily prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours. Familiarity, alas, can mute the power of that inspired book, the linchpin of the Old Testament. During Lent-2011, I found new meaning in Exodus through a closer reading of the commentaries by the Fathers of the Church that accompany the story of Moses and the nascent people of Israel in the breviary. The first millennium Fathers drew spiritual nourishment from Exodus because they treated the second book of the Torah as a source of wisdom, not as an artifact to be dissected. This year, my Lenten journey through the Book of Exodus will be further complemented by the commentary of a contemporary man of wisdom, Leon R. Kass.

Despite its many confusions, our era has somehow contrived to produce the ideal teacher in Leon Kass: learned humanist, medical doctor, bioethicist of distinction, gentleman and wise counselor – a Jewish scholar who once helped Catholics at the Pontifical Gregorian University read the Scriptures as they’d never done before. Kass’s new book, Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus (Yale University Press), complements his previous epic, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Free Press); both books grew out of many years of an intense, searching exploration of those biblical texts with students. And out of that open-minded reading of Exodus, a familiar story takes on fresh meaning: now, through Kass’s commentary, Exodus offers us a profound reflection on what it means to be a true people, not merely an aggregate of individuals or a network of families.

What makes a people, a nation? According to Exodus, a nation needs a shared story. In the case of the people of Israel, that was and remains the story of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt, where bondage prevented them from being truly a people. A nation also needs a founding event, in which the people consent to a common way of life. In Exodus, that constituting event is the free acceptance (as Kass winsomely puts it), of “a yoke that becomes a tree of life” – the Sinai covenant, the Ten Commandments, and the Mosaic Law. And a true people need a worthy response to the human aspiration to be in touch with something greater than ourselves. So Exodus instructs its readers to reject false worship (the golden calf) for the sake of true worship – the worship of the One who alone is worthy of worship; the One who enters history to liberate his people and asks them to follow his path into the future.

The Book of Exodus thus raises important questions about our contemporary American situation. Can we be the self-constituting nation of the Constitution’s preamble – “We the People of the United States” – if future generations are taught a false story of America by the New York Times’ mendacious “1619 Project,” now being imposed on schools around the country? Can we be truly a people if, instead of the preamble’s purposeful, covenantal commitment to form a “more perfect Union” that will “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” our relationships as citizens are merely transactional – you get something, I get something? Can we be a true nation if we worship the false god of wealth, bow to the false messiahs of identity politics, and indulge the false ethic of “I did it my way”?

There is much to think and pray about this Lent. The Book of Exodus is a good companion on the journey, and Leon Kass is an admirable guide to the truths found in that great book.


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About George Weigel 331 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).

7 Comments

  1. Discipline! Lent! Prayer! Denial!

    When the factor of Wage and Debt slavery is recognized, Sex slave trade, more humans in the USA are found to be “slaves” today than ever before, by est more humans are slaves to the sex slave trade in the USA than the Entire Atlantic slave trade times.

    Todays United States workers are held under wage slaves that is for more profitable than than past history of the slave trade. In today the employer does not have to feed, house, cloth, or water, to debt slaves. On a broad basis, their is limited interest in provide the Corporal works of mercy, visit the sick, imprisoned, and that bear wrongs, and to forgive others..
    Revenge rules.
    When the issue of slavery comes up, its ok to note.. Britain in the era, Cromwell, outlawed the Catholic church in Britain, Ireland.
    The British sold the Irish into slavery, or exiled to the US. In the time of slavery, if a slave owner had dangerous work, he hire the Irish, so his purchased humans, did not get hurt in dangerous jobs, if the Irish did, they were kicked out to the road.
    The era of, the British were great, the Irish were bad, pass the plate.
    Today its the era of, the British are great, the Islamic are bad, pass the plate.
    A lent of, borrow no money, no credit cards…call for an end to slavery in the USA… Pay people a sustainable wage, recognize the hoarding of wealth to a few, the military industrial complex, we were warned about decades back, President Kennedy tried to stand against.

    • Yes, you are exactly right. We are all slaves here in the U.S. We all wish we had pure, honest, noble leaders today like JFK. And while we’re at it, the earth is actually flat and the moon landings were faked on a Hollywood backlot. I saw Elvis today, but he got away before I could get his autograph.

  2. How can the America of the future thrive if we keep on parroting and holding as sacred the discredited founding narrative with slave-owning founding fathers declaring equality for all, and the genesis of the nation based on the genocide of Native Americans, the slavery of Black Americans, and the white supremacist racism on the part of European Americans. With these considerations, it’s time we read the Book of Exodus the way Laurel Dykstra expounded in Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus, that is not from the perspective of the freed slaves but that of the household of Pharaoh. Here we can see America mirroring Egypt and realistically portray its original sins of slavery, genocide, and racism.

  3. G Weigel sets the premise for national unity, “Can we be a true nation if we worship the false god of wealth, bow to the false messiahs of identity politics, and indulge the false ethic of I did it my way?”. Achieving that in a culture at polar odds within itself is the difficulty. Thomas Jefferson’s Liberty in the Proclamation is a far cry from Anthony Kennedy’s Liberty in Planned Parenthood E PA v Casey the latter the Gold Calf standard for Liberalism. So we have two diverse Exodus directions, the desired one leading to the Holy Land lavished by Weigel, the other the current reality returning to Egypt. Civic Nationalism referenced by Sol initially defined as an all inclusive libertarian concept insuring the liberties envisioned in the Declaration, has morphed into an iron clad military encircled Capitol determined to extinguish any political, religious doctrine that places limitation on that Golden Calf of licentiousness. As usual Weigel offers us commendable reading, good knowledge to contemplate for Lent. Consider Henri Bergson in The Two Sources of Morality and Religion. Bergson says Kantian moral imperative ethics aims at social cohesion but is closed. Bergson said there is another kind of morality and religion, an open morality and dynamic religion concerned with creativity and progress. They are not concerned with social cohesion, and thus Bergson calls this morality open because it includes everyone (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) . Anomalously Bergson cited Catholicism as the sole inclusive religion open to all. Golden Calf Liberalism is actually exclusive and divisive, sanctioning any religious, political, ethical belief that limits absolute moral freedom, the equivalent to ‘do whatever you want whenever you want’. My point is Catholicism may be better served today with an emphasis on this unique dimension of freedom, a reasoned definition of the scope and limitations of freedom of conscience, exercised in willingness to live ‘side by side with the sinner’ in the pursuit of truth rather than implementation of the strict societal cohesiveness in apparent process of implementation by the new Administration.

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