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The Divine Name and the Mystery of God

On the Readings for March 20, 2022, the Third Sunday of Lent

Illustration from the 1897 "Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us" by Charles Foster (WIkiArt.org)

Readings:
• 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 deserts 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 Kgs 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.

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.

9 Comments

  1. There is a downloadable PDF online that is a summarization of lectures given by a rabbi about the Exodus titled “Exodus from Egypt: The Hidden Agenda”
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    https://staff.ncsy.org/education/education/education/education/material/C8HxYivMlL/exodus-from-egypt:-the-hidden-agenda/
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    In this presentation the rabbi covers the plaques, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, and the names of God. He goes into YHVH(YHWH). The names of God starts on page 6 of the PDF. It is an interesting presentation given from a Jewish perspective.

  2. As a priest philosopher The I Am name is, yes, reference to the inscrutable God, even our nothingness. As both priest and philosopher I Am speaks to Saint Thomas Aquinas’ absolute, unconditional reality of God [although why so many becoming unbelievers?].
    At the opening of the Summa Saint Thomas says, the only absolute truth is God. Shocking. Or, is it shocking? That all existing things outside of the existence of God [we’re not pantheists] are kept in existence by him. Not only did Aristotle touch on this, Saint John the Apostle in the prologium states it, as does the Apostle Peter. Were they philosophers?
    Infused with divine wisdom they readily understood the immensity and the finality of the existence of God as the singular truth upon all that is true corresponds for its very efficacy. Now here is where the uninspired philosopher, vagrant thinker, brilliant scientist veer off into different directions, most of which tend toward an amorphous deity somewhere out there keeping all things going like clockwork, as atheistic leaning Herman Melville will relegate “like an impervious [to man’s plight] watch”.
    this is where this essay finds its strength, in that the author establishes God is a personal God. Very personal. If intimacy between creatures, conjugal love between man and woman is very intimate and personal we be assured that the intimacy of our closeness with God, [since with God all is surpassed infinitely] in the beatific vision far surpasses our experiences here on earth [except perhaps for the mystic saint, as Teresa of Avila pictured in Bernini’s sculpture of her ecstasy].

    • We are so incredibly blessed to be in Christ. To acknowledge the gifts that God has given one is important. All good gifts come from Him and we need to endorse this daily.

      Thank you and God bless you.

      P.S. In an earlier response to one of your comments, I mistakenly mentioned Paul’s ascension to the third heaven. You will know that I was confused. Never the less, I ask you for forbearance.

  3. The source of Herman Melville’s description of God as disinterested and watchlike [for example whaling boats crushed by a whale sailors torn and bleeding “on a beautiful sunny day fit for a nuptial”] is from a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne a believer [Hawthorne’s daughter converted to Catholicism and became a nun] and the skeptical Melville had an interesting relationship that began with a series of postal exchanges eventually developing a bond. It seems Melville on return to New York City and relative poverty had a possible conversion to the faith.

  4. You failed to mention what the divine name actually is. It’s the name that can actually cast demons out and you know it but you choose to make mention of it and offer no truth behind it therefore you are boasting proudly about concealing it all this time and the rest of the truth that is about to come out. Your time is up.

    • You are either trolling or being stupid. Or playing God (“Your time is up?!)

      From the column:

      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).

      • Yes, and in John’s Gospel we then find Jesus Christ, within the Triune Oneness, announcing the “I AM” seven times: “I am the bread of life…the light of the world…the gate [for the sheep]…the Good Shepherd … the resurrection and the life…the way, the truth and the life…the true vine…”.

        Not really sure whether Angel is “being stupid” or not, but just last week, after considering the obtuseness of a world that denies even the existence of sin, I found myself inquiring out loud whether blind stupidity is a sin. Please advise.

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