This Sunday’s first reading, from the Book of Exodus, presents us with what is probably the second most famous story about fire that is to be found in the Bible. In this story, we hear how God called Moses to lead the Jewish people from the slavery that bound them in Egypt to the freedom that they would experience in the Promised Land. Called by God, Moses responds “Here I am.” From this point on, he will be called to lead the Jewish people to freedom. The Exodus story is extremely important in helping us to understand what it is that Christ has done for us by His life, death and resurrection. We will hear much of the Exodus story throughout the Lenten season. Once Moses has responded to God’s call, he will go into Egypt and confront Pharaoh and demand freedom for the enslaved Jewish people. In order to obtain this freedom, Moses will lead the people of Israel through the desert. On the journey, those whom he is leading will doubt in his leadership and turn away from the true God towards false gods and they will spend forty years in the desert before they are willing to trust God and are finally allowed to enter into the promised Land. Through this experience, the People of Israel will come to believe that Yahweh really is the true God and they will believe that they are able to experience His blessings in the Promised Land where He dwells with them. The image of fire is also used to show that God is leading the people of Israel to their new land as a pillar of fire goes before them.
As the event of God’s action in leading the people of Israel to freedom marks for the Jewish people proof for them that they are God’s people, God will also establish a sacred meal that allows them to recall all that God has done for them by bringing them into freedom. This meal will be called the Passover Meal and in it they recall all that God did for them in leading them out of slavery to the freedom of the Promised Land. In particular, they recall how they were saved by the blood of the lamb with which they marked the doors of their houses while they were still living in Egypt. In order to prove to Pharaoh that He was the one true God, God sent a curse over the land of Egypt and took every first-born male child in the land—even that of Pharaoh. Only those who had marked their doorposts with the blood of the lamb were saved. On Holy Thursday, we will recall that Jesus celebrated this Passover meal with His disciples before He died and in it He established the New Covenant by which He saved us with His Blood. It is for this reason that before we receive Communion, the Host is held up and the presider at Mass states: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who takes away the sins of the world.” This coming Easter, we will celebrate that by His life, death and resurrection, Christ has won us an even greater freedom. We have not just been freed from temporary slavery, but from death itself. We are not invited to live in a sacred country for the remainder of our lives. We have been given the offer of salvation and eternal life with the Holy Trinity in Heaven.
What Christ has done for us is actually the most famous fire story in the Bible. On Pentecost Sunday, we read in the Acts of Apostles, that tongues as of fire came down and rested upon the heads of all the believers that were gathered with Christ in the room. From this moment on, the Church was born and everything changes. In the Old Testament story of the calling of Moses, God remains outside of the person being called. The place where God speaks from is called sacred. For the people of Israel in the Old Testament, God is always outside of themselves in a sacred place or manifestation, such as a pillar of fire. As a result of Pentecost, God’s Holy Spirit comes to dwell within each of us, and we, God’s people, are sacred because of the anointing that we receive through our Baptism and Confirmation. Throughout this Lenten journey, as we prepare to renew our baptismal promises this coming Easter Sunday, we are called to remove whatever obstacles stand in the way of our hearts being open to receive and follow God’s Holy Spirit. Like Moses, each one of us is called by name to follow the Lord. However, unlike Moses, God does not speak to us in some exterior place from a burning bush. We are called to hear God speaking to us as He enters our hearts and speaks to us through the power of the Holy Spirit. God does not call us to a foreign land, as He did Moses and the people of Israel. God, instead, calls each of us to eternal life and to recognize who we are as brothers and sister made in His image and likeness and redeemed. Our Lenten task is to hear God’s voice and to follow.
Today’s Gospel offers some strong advice about how we might all strive to hear God’s word more clearly in our lives. That advise is: “Repent.” This word is often associated with feelings of guilt and the need to give up things. However, I would like to think that it has more to do with listening. There is another word that is used in this context of spiritual conversion and it is “metanoia.” This word means to change. Jesus’s call for repentance is a call to change those areas of our lives where we have not been listening to His voice and welcoming the Holy Spirit into our hearts. I think the call to repentance can sometimes be as simple as understanding how much God loves us and who we are as His sons and daughters made in His image and likeness. Many people carry on living a certain way because they believe that there is no forgiveness for them in God. As the Psalm proclaims today, “The Lord is kind and merciful.” God desires that we change and know His love for us. This patience of God is shown in the parable that we hear in the second part of today’s Gospel of the fig tree that will not bear fruit. God wants to give it the time to change and he is patient after the first few fruitless seasons. He asks that it be given more time. However, at a certain point its time will come and it will be deemed a fruitless fig tree. It cannot go on forever.
The purpose of Jesus’ emphatic call to repent is that we do not go on forever either. Each one of us will only have a certain number of years and Lents to accept the invitation that Christ gives us to hear His call and really allow our hearts to be open to the Holy Spirit in our lives. Jesus cites the example of those who are concerned about their spiritual lives because they hear stories of others who have had terrible things happen to them. It is like that even today. After the terrible events of 9/11 church attendance went up everywhere—for a few weeks. None of us know when we are going to meet our end. The only way to be ready, is to be ready today. I mentioned at the beginning of Lent, in my Ash Wednesday homily, that one word that describes well what Lent is all about is the word “Today.” God invites us to hear His call today and to follow after Him. Moses heard the call of God from the burning bush and responded with “Here I am.” We are invited to hear the call of God calling us through the fire of the Holy Spirit that He has sent into our hearts and to respond today with the same “Here am I.” The Lord invites us to respond in that way when we are asked today to assist someone in need. He invites that response from us today when we think of the person that we have refused to forgive for the past 20 years. He certainly invites that response from us today when we are tempted and feel helpless in the face of ongoing sin and struggles with temptation. By giving God our “yes” today, He invites us to open our hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit and to live in His presence today. By living in God’s presence today and allowing His Holy Spirit to dwell in our hearts, we give our “yes” to living in communion with Him now and are ready for no matter what comes. Saying “yes” to God today is consenting to living in communion with God for all eternity.
I have to confess, that when it comes to the spiritual life, there is a word that I am very fond of—“Tomorrow.” Tomorrow, I will give up that sinful practice; tomorrow I will hear God’s call; tomorrow I will get serious about my prayers life. “Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love you tomorrow, you are always a day away.” Today is for me and tomorrow is for God. Paul says in his Letter to the Corinthians today that “whoever thinks that he [or she] is standing secure should take care not to fall.” The only way to truly be secure in our relationship with God is to hear God’s call today and believe in how much he truly loves us. Love is really the only thing that can change our hearts. It is by allowing God to love us and loving Him back today that we are saved and changed. There is an antiphon that those who pray the Liturgy of the Hours pray each day as part of their opening prayer for the day. It states: “Today if you hear the voice of the Lord, harden not your hearts.” If I were to try and sum up today’s readings, this is what I think they are saying. Today, if the Lord invites you to go the extra mile; if you are given an opportunity to forgive a brother or sister; if the Lord calls you to turn away from sin; if you are called to love and see the face of Christ in another– Today if you hear the voice of the Lord, harden not your hearts.
As we prepare in this Lenten season to renew our Baptismal promises, may we all say “yes” to the fire of God’s Holy Spirit that speaks to us from within and respond to God’s love and call for us with the same words which Moses spoke to the fire that appeared outside of him—“Here I am.”
Fr. Michael McGourty,
Pastor—St. Peter’s Parish—Toronto