The Third Sunday in Lent


His Name Shall Be Called Jesus

If they ask me, “What is His Name?” What am I to tell them? God replied, “I am who am.” Then he added, “This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I am sent me to you”

Exodus 3:13–14

Revelation is knowledge, knowledge, given by God when in the fullness of time He wills to reveal Himself. It is addressed to the obedient intellect. God may make Himself known by His deeds: “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself” (Exodus 19:3). He may make Himself known to the prophets in visions. God may teach us through His providential government of our lives as we walk along the path He has given. But on a day in the desert, when Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, God commanded Moses’ attention by showing Him a burning bush that “though on fire was not consumed.” There is no description of what Moses saw at Mount Horeb, but Moses knew that God was present. As he approached the burning bush God warned Moses not to come nearer and commanded that he remove his sandals: “For the place where you stand is holy ground.” Moses, full of awe, asked the question one who encounters mystery is likely to ask. “Who are you; what is your name? And the God of the burning bush did not give the expected answer. He did not say, “I am the god of the storms, or of fertility,” or of victory. He answered in the words “I am who I am.” This enigmatic answer would be reiterated and reinforced at Sinai, when God warned that He was not to be known and worshipped under the form of any creature that inhabited the sky the earth or the underworld. Taken together this is the account of the day when God distinguished Himself from the familiar gods with which mankind in our natural desire to make gods for ourselves had populated the world Moses knew. It is native to the human heart, and wise, to acknowledge the forces that shape us and the mysteries that surround or lives. If we do not now worship a holy mountain, we are still touched by its grandeur, and if we do not believe that the ocean is inhabited by Leviathan its power and incipient chaos still touch imagination as we walk along the shore. Surely no one who holds a newborn is immune to the wonder of fertility, and only the purblind would doubt that Eros has a super-personal power. Surely the desire of the Israelites to worship the Baalim, gods of fertility, the god of the sea and of the mountain, is not beyond our sympathies. Virgil tells us that when Aeneas founded Rome, he began with prayers to the genius of the place, the earth, “first of Gods,” to the rivers and nymphs, to Great Jove and to the Phrygian Mother. We call these things idolatry because we know something better, but there is the native wisdom of a world that knows it is immersed in things greater than itself and therefore able to look at the world with wonder. These are the familiar things, they are indeed what critics decry as projections of ourselves, not realizing that these desires are the natural expressions of the mystery of creation that proceeds from the human heart to meet and embrace the supernatural. But in the world made by He Who Is, after Moses met God in the burning bush to be told that He was none of these things, the story of the Old Testament is in one of its dimensions the story of the separation of Israel from the worship of the natural order to secure their consecration to He Who Is. The Hebrews will always, and beautifully, see in nature the traces of God’s creative hand, but they will be a kind of scandal in the ancient world as a people having no god that can be imaged, no place in which He appears but Jerusalem. The word ‘holy’ describes a character, the character that belongs to one who is self-founding, perfection, not an example of any form or category or essence, but the author of all essences and forms, the one who Is Who He Is. It also defines the relation that establishes this God as other. Things holy are lifted out of the ordinary and consecrated to God, so that Israel would be the holy nation, and indeed even the place at which God appeared is holy. Moses, take off your shoes, the ground is holy. When the tabernacle was built at its center was the Holy of Holies, in it the ark with its mercy seat, crowned with two golden cherubim, between which God appeared and spoke to Israel. The world through which Israel wandered was full of gods who were known because those who worshipped had named them. But it is in this text in Exodus that God begins to lift us out of the familiar world of the gods we know and into the presence of God who we know only because He wills to be known by us. There is always the distance that is due the holy. In matters of the mind and imagination it is reverent ignorance. In time it is the holiness of God’s day. In place it is recognition of the sacredness of place. So at Horeb Moses was commanded to stay back and to remove his shoes for the very ground was holy. At Sinai God warned Israel to stay back and permitted Moses to see Him only as He passed by. It has been the universal intuition of the Church that the space in which the altar stands and in which Christ is present is holy ground. And theirs was the duty of ignorance of His name imposed by God at Horeb. For a millennium the Jews would move through the world relying on a God in whose providential care they trusted but whose name they did not know. The Israelites will know God through His effects. The heavens will declare the glory of God. But they will never know His name beyond the four sacred letters that summarize the message given to Moses in the desert, a name that is not a name, a name so holy that it could not be written or pronounced. One can see the Old Testament as a vast prophetic attempt to clear the human heart of god who could so be named in order to prepare the day when God Himself would at last reveal who He is. The Gospel came into a world Paul encountered on the Areopagus, in which there was a duty to worship all those gods Aeneas had so reverently named and more, but also an intuition that there was an unknown god whose name they did not know (Acts 17:22–31). But in the fullness of time God told Israel His name (Ephesians 1:10). It would happen that with the fullness of Christian revelation God could justly be called many things: Creator, the Blessed Trinity, Savior, Redeemer, but the divine Son in whom He reveals Himself has only one name. When the Angel tells Mary that she will bear the Son of the Most High who will be great, Gabriel commands, “You will call His name Jesus.” It is through that name and no other that mankind is to be saved (Acts 4:12). He will offer Himself for the sins of the world beneath a placard that names Him Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. His is the name that is above every name, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the God the Father” (Philippians 2:10). He is there in the Church, on the cross; He is there personally, feeding the Church with His Body and Blood, in the Mass. At last we know who He is. And He is not a tree or as sacred rock; He is the Son of Man, one like unto us (Hebrews 4:15). He became Man so that we might become divine by participation in His divine life.