Friday, January 29, 2016

You Can Become All Flame

                                  (Painting: "Moses vor dem brennenden Dornbusch," by Gebhard Fugel, c.1920)

Recently in our Wednesday night Bible study, we came across the famous story of Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3). Moses is herding sheep on a desert mountain when he sees something strange: a bush suffused with flame, but with the branches and leaves left unconsumed. It turns out that this unusual manifestation is the presence of God himself, there to speak with Moses and to commission him to lead the people of Israel out of slavery. 

If you’ve ever spent time in church or Sunday school, you’ve probably known this story for a long time. In fact, you may have heard it so often that it ceased to seem odd to you. But the truth is, this is a very strange story. It leads one to ask the question, Why would God show up in this form, rather than in one of the more common ways he interacts with other biblical characters, either through angelic messengers or simply as a voice from heaven? We also need to ask the question of why it’s symbolically important that the bush itself doesn’t burn up—that point is clearly important to the writer of the Exodus account, because he remarks on it twice. But why? Couldn’t God just as easily have spoken from a pillar of flame, with no bush at all?

Christians in the early centuries of our faith thought long and hard about biblical symbolism like this. They saw in the Exodus story a symbol of the Gospel itself—of God, in his mercy, acting to save his people out of their slavery to sin and brokenness and death. And, in fact, many of the events of the Exodus story do match up with the Christian Gospel—the Passover foreshadowing the sacrifice of Christ, the journey through the Red Sea foreshadowing baptism, and so on. As such, the early church looked at the story of the burning bush and saw there a symbol of the whole Gospel of Jesus Christ. What is said about the bush parallels the core doctrines that we hold about Christ’s nature: that he is fully divine and fully human, and that those two natures are inseparable from one another in his personhood, but at the same time unmixed. In the words of the old Chalcedonian Creed, Christ is “acknowledged in two natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the natures being in no way removed because of the union, but rather the properties of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one person.” This union of two natures was foreshadowed in the burning bush nearly a millennium and a half before the moment when the divine Son of God became incarnate—the flame representing the divine nature, the bush representing the flesh of Jesus’ human nature, but both existing in complete harmony together in the womb of the Virgin Mary. 

The early church even went a little further, and taught that the burning bush was also a foreshadowing of us, of redeemed humanity in Christ. There’s an old story from the time of the desert fathers (Christian heroes who had gone out into the wilderness to live solitary lives of prayer): A man named Lot went to visit a desert father named Abba Joseph. “Abba,” said Lot, “I can I do my devotions, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and he said, “If you will, you can become all flame.” This story speaks to one of the greatest truths of Christianity: that we poor mortals of flesh and blood can, through the work of the Holy Spirit and the practice of prayer, become suffused with the radiance and joy of the divine life, just like the burning bush. I would challenge you to take this year to develop the habit of persistent prayer, and let the flame of the Holy Spirit be fanned into fire in your heart.