- Numbers 21:4-9
Having received the astonishing gift of the Law through Moses on Mt. Sinai, God’s people now return to the daily reality of trying to survive while wandering in the wilderness. They are tired and hungry. They complain about the food and lack of water. According to the narrative, God sends serpents among them that strike some who die. Frightened, they ask Moses to intercede. Moses follows God’s directions, forms a serpent out of bronze and instructs those who were bitten to “look at the serpent and live.” (According to II Kings and the Wisdom of Solomon, the bronze serpent remained with the chosen for the rest of their time in the wilderness and was eventually placed in the Temple in Jerusalem.)
- Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22
The psalmist describes the universal human “rebellion” against God’s ways. But she also recalls that when that rebellion leads to bad results for us, God hears our distress, delivers and saves. This repeated, undeserved generosity should inspire us to “Tell of God’s acts with shouts of joy.”
- Ephesians 2: 1-10
In this brief excerpt from Ephesians, the unknown writer expands on some important themes in Paul’s letters. Before God’s intervention, he writes, our lives were ruled by ‘demonic’ powers that led to passion and wrath. But God, “who is rich in mercy,” through Christ, “made us alive together with Christ” and “seated us with him in heavenly places.” All of this is “the gift of God.” Now we are capable of “good works.”
- John 3: 14-21
In his long conversation with the distinguished Jewish leader, Nicodeamus, Jesus uses the well-known story of Moses and the bronze serpent in the wilderness as an analogy for his own role. John’s narrative returns to a running theme when it refers to Jesus as “the Light” that came into the world. God so loved the world God gave the Son to save the world. But “people loved darkness rather than light,” because all “who love evil hate the light” that exposes their deeds. This is the background for the significant saying: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him might have eternal life.”
Those forty years in the wilderness included ecstatic highs and miserable lows in the relationship between God and God’s people. Beginning with their spectacular deliverance from slavery, followed by the gift of the Law and continuing with miraculous gifts that enabled them to subsist, God’s generosity and goodness were vital for the survival of God’s people. But their very human response vacillated between occasional thanksgiving, and, more routinely “rebellion.” And when trouble came as a result of that rebellion, God acted to save them from the consequences of their rebellion! This is the pattern that persists throughout their history (and is the dominant theme of the Hebrew scriptures). It continues into the time of the Second Testament which testifies to the same pattern in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. And, it even persists today in the lives of those who read these narratives and discover a description of their own journey, too.
For reasons known to God alone, God chooses to engage in relationship with God’s creatures. And, relationship that endures always includes stretches of starry-eyed love interrupted by disappointment, then forgiveness, reconciliation and a new level of caring and intimacy made stronger by that history of highs and lows.
Strongly influenced by Husserl and Heidegger, but also by the Hebrew scriptures as well as Pascal and Proust, Emmanuel Levinas developed his singular, distinctive voice. A later influence was Franz Rosenzweig whose writing led Levinas to conclude that at some point in our lives we come to realize that life does not neatly fit into our “totalizing” concepts; the “elements” of life “overflow their essence.”
“Life, miracle of miracles, [is] the original fact of religion! God enters into relation with the world and man…. Religion is not a ‘confession,’ but the texture or drama of being….” “But this relationship accompanied by life is not a formal bond or abstract synthesis. It is in each case specific and concrete. God and Man [sic], the bond is precisely Revelation. Man and the world (but man already illuminated by the revelation and the world already marked by creation) is precisely Redemption.” “As the movement of God toward man and human singularity– that is, ipseity– revelation is immediately recognized as love: love opens up that singularity. Not that there is love first and revelation next: revelation is love from the start. But at this point it is possible to say more: the love of God for human uniqueness is commandment to love.” “Only love can command love.” (Outside the Subject, pp 56-57)
The puzzle is: Why does God choose to engage with humankind? The answer is: love. The question is: How does God engage with humankind: the answer is: love. This is the “revelation” to which the biblical texts give witness.
As we travel our forty days toward this Triduum, may we see our lives in that holy pattern of gift/rebellion/renewal; that never-ending, never-failing pattern that is the essence of creation, made clear by revelation (to those who chose to see) and understood as redemptive love. “Only love can command love.”
John Updike is generally regarded as the preeminent chronicler of American life in the second half of the Twentieth century. His novels can be quite explicit and beautifully poetic. Some might be surprised that for his funeral in January of 2009, he asked that the King James translation be used for the readings. His rector described his liturgical preferences as “conservative.” For Updike, all of life– from the sublime to the rawest– somehow fit together. In 1961 his short story about a seminarian who took a summer job as a lifeguard was published in The New Yorker. Here is an excerpt:
“On the back seat of my lifeguard’s chair is a painted cross– true a red cross, signifying bandages, splints, spirits of ammonia, and sunburn unguents. Nevertheless, it comforts me. Each morning, mounting into my chair, my athletic and youthfully fuzzy toes expertly gripping the slates that make a ladder, it is as if I am climbing an immense, rigid, loosely-fitting vestment.
“Again in each of my roles, I sit attentively perched on the edge of an immensity. The sea, with its multiform and mysterious hosts, its savage and senseless rages, no longer comfortably serves as divine metaphor indicates how severely humanism has corrupted the apples of our creed. We seek God now in flowers and good deeds, and the immensities of blue that surround the little scabs of land upon which we draw our lives to their unsatisfactory conclusions are suffused by science and vacuous horror. I myself can hardly bear the thought of stars, or begin to count the moralities of coral. But from my chair the sea, slightly distended by my higher perspective, seems a misty old gentleman stretched at his ease in an immense armchair which acts for arms the arms of the bay and for an antimacassar the freshly laundered sky. Sailboats float on his surface like idle and unrelated but benevolent thoughts. The soughing of the surf is the rhythmic lifting of his ripple-stretched vest as he breathes. Consider: We enter the sea with a shock; our skin and blood shout in protest, but, in that instant, that leap, what do we find? Ecstasy and buoyancy. Swimming offers a parable. We struggle and thrash, and drown; we succumb, even in despair, and float and are saved.”