Living Tradition
Editor: Msgr. John F. McCarthy, J.C.D., S.T.D.Distributed several times a year to interested members.
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No. 32 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program November 1990

by John F. McCarthy

        Moses, forty years after he had fled from Egypt, found himself in the desert of Sinai and there had the vision which is described in the Book of Exodus 3:1-15:

Now, Moses fed the sheep of Jethro his father-in-law, a priest of Madian, and he drove the flock to the inner parts of the desert and came to the mountain of God, Horeb. And the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush and he saw that the bush was on fire and was not burnt. And Moses said, "I will go and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt." And when the Lord saw that he went forward to see, he called to him out of the midst of the bush and said, "Moses! Moses!" And he answered, "Here I am." And he said, "Come not nigh hither. Put off the shoes from thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground." And he said, "I am the God of thy Father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." Moses hid his face for he durst not look at God. And the Lord said to him, "I have seen the affliction of my people in Egypt and I have heard their cry, because of the rigor of them that are over the works. And knowing their sorrow, I am come down to deliver them out of the hands of the Egyptians, and to bring them out of that land into a good and spacious land, into a land that flows with milk and honey to the places of the Canaanite, the Hethite, the Amorhite, the Pherezite, the Hevite, and the Jebusite. For the cry of the children of Israel is come to me, and I have seen their affliction, wherewith they are oppressed by the Egyptians. But come, and I will send thee to Pharaoh that thou mayest bring forth my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt." And Moses said to God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?" And he said to him, "I will be with thee, and this thou shalt have for a sign that I have sent thee: When thou shalt have brought my people out of Egypt, thou shalt offer sacrifice to God upon this mountain." Moses said to God: "Lo, I shall go to the children of Israel and say to them: The God of your fathers hath sent me to you. If they should say to me, What is his name? What shall I say to them?" God said to Moses, "I AM WHO AM." He said, "Thou shalt say to the children of Israel: He who is hath sent me to you." And God said again to Moses: "Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel: the Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me to you. This is my name forever, and this is my memorial unto all generations."

        The understanding of this passage begins with the realization that the episode described by the inspired writer really took place. There was a bush seen by Moses that burned without being consumed; there was a voice heard by Moses that came from the bush. This was a miraculous occurrence intended to convey a spiritual message, and we ask ourselves what this message might be.

        Let us note to begin with that the ground surrounding the Burning Bush was holy ground, and that Moses was told to take off his shoes in reverence for God, Who was somehow associated with this holy thing. To stand or walk without shoes means to feel the stones and the hard ground, and it signifies to practice mental and moral discipline as one advances toward the vision of God. One can approach the vision of God only if he exercises the proper discipline and carries his cross as he walks. This attitude is necessary for any advance in understanding of the sacred Scriptures.

        Insight into this episode can be gained by comparing Exodus 3 with parallel passages in other books of the Bible. Turning to the Gospel according to St. Mark, Chapter 12, we find the discussion of Our Lord with the Sadducees, who did not believe in life after death. Whatever they read, they read in a very materialistic and humanistic way, and they were nonbelievers as regards the Resurrection. They had a puzzle to present to Our Lord regarding the woman who had several husbands, and they asked Him which brother would have her as his wife in the Resurrection.

And Jesus, answering, said to them: Do you not therefore err, because you know not the Scriptures nor the power of God? For when they shall rise again from the dead, they shall neither marry nor be married, but are as the angels in heaven. And as concerning the dead that they rise again, have you not read in the Book of Moses, how in the bush God spoke to him saying: I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob? He is not the God of the dead but of the living. You therefore do greatly err.

        In the Gospel according to St. Luke 20:37-38 (cf. Matt 22:29-32) we find:

Now, that the dead rise again, Moses also showed at the bush when he called the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, for He is not the God of the dead but of the living; for all live to him.

        It's something added where Luke says, "For all live to him."

        In the Acts of the Apostles 7:29-35, Stephen says:

And Moses fled upon this word and was a stranger in the land of Madian, where he begot two sons. And when forty years were expired, there appeared to him in the desert of Mount Sinai, an angel in a flame of fire in a bush. And Moses seeing it wondered at the sight, and as he drew near to view it, the voice of the Lord came unto him saying: "I am the God of thy fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And Moses, being terrified, durst not behold. And the Lord said to him: "Loose the shoes from thy feet, for the place wherein thou standest is holy ground. Seeing, I have seen the affliction of my people which is in Egypt, and I have heard their groaning and am come down to deliver them. And now come, and I will send thee into Egypt." This Moses, whom they refused, saying: "Who hath appointed thee prince and judge?" him God sent to be prince and redeemer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush.

        We find that an angel in a flame of fire was there in the bush and that it was, therefore, by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush, that he was sent to be prince and redeemer.

        Now, we could ask ourselves what, in Our Lord's discussion with the Sadducees, was the force of the argument: "I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. He is not the God of the dead but of the living"?

        Could not one say, Yes, that is, "I am the God that Abraham worshipped when he was alive, that Isaac worshipped when he was alive, and that Jacob worshipped when he was alive"? But now they are dead; they exist no more. Yet, even the Sadducees seemed to see something more in this argument. How does it really imply that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were still alive at the time that the voice spoke to Moses from the Burning Bush?

        That the Bush was burning without being consumed represents permanence of life. First of all, it represents the eternity of God, of Him Who is. God is the necessary Being; He is the essential Being. Only God can say in the fullest sense: "I am Who am." Secondly, the Voice from the Bush confirms that the God worshipped by Abraham, by Isaac, and by Jacob is the true God, the living God, Who is the apex and source of all reality. The miracle of the Voice and the Bush illustrates, therefore, that the religion of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob is the true religion, and not made up of imaginary and fictitious elements, neither a conscious lie nor a product of religious sentiment welling up from the depths of the subconscious.

        God said, "I am Who am," and Moses brought the message to the people: "He Who is sent me." Anyone who would understand what "He Who is" meant, would also see the force of the mission of Moses. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had died in the hope of being with God; they had hoped in the future life. The merely human interpretation would be that there was a promise of God, not to individuals, but to the race of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, so that they would be remembered by and would live in their descendants, and in that sense they would still exist. That argument is found wanting, because ultimately it would not really demonstrate the purpose of their religion; it would not demonstrate the promise, because the promise was not just that the race would survive. The promise was to individuals, and how would the promise be fulfilled in individuals if they die and are annihilated, if the merely human focus is the only focus of reality? So greater force is there. That's something to reflect upon, and I think it imposed itself upon the Sadducees, because they did believe in some sense in the writings of Moses. Their merely human focus fell away in face of the consideration that God is He Who is.

        I'd like to see if we can draw something more out of this argument of Our Lord, referring most immediately to an essay by David T. Johnson, a Catholic layman, whose apostolate consists in writing essays of one page about Moses and the Burning Bush. He has perceived that "I am Who am" refers to God the Father; "You are Who are" to God the Son; and "He is Who is" to God the Holy Spirit. The essay to which I refer is dated April 28, 1988, and I think that, in its own way, it's a penetrating statement.

        Let us see what David Johnson says. First of all, the Burning Bush is not being consumed, so the flame did not draw forth smoke. Rather there was an angel in the flame who, therefore, appeared as though drawn from the Burning Bush by the flame. We are given to understand that the angel in the flame had two origins: he was not only from heaven, but also from the Burning Bush, and that, indeed, as though he had drawn substance from it.

        St. Thomas tells us that, usually, God communicates revelation through angels. Therefore, the angel that Moses saw in the bush could have been an angel in the strict sense of the term. But, as St. Gregory the Great points out, the word "angel" is not a description of a nature, but of a mission. Angel means "messenger" and Gregory tells us that they are angels inasmuch as they are carrying messages or when they are carrying messages, because the word "angel" does not describe them or their nature, but only their mission.

        It's also true that the "Great Angel of Salvation" is Christ Himself and that's even referred to in the Canon of the Mass, the first Eucharistic Prayer. The angel mentioned there is Christ Himself, Who came down from Heaven to redeem us, to be united to a Body, to a human nature taken from Our Lady, and that Body was living and burning with the fire and the love of the Holy Spirit. So on a prophetic level, on a symbolic level, the material happening, which was an actual bush burning without being consumed, represented Christ Himself, first in His Body, burning with life and burning especially with the love and the grace of the Holy Spirit. The Body of Christ was totally on fire, saturated with the sanctity of the Holy Spirit, and at the same time the Soul of Christ was sanctified by the Holy Spirit, both of them united to the Person of the Word of God, Who was sent by God the Father to redeem us. In this perspective, the Angel represents the Divine Person of Christ, standing, as it were, above the Burning Bush, yet united to it in the flame.

        Johnson considers for what reason Moses and his flock were on holy ground. From whence did that ground receive holiness? "Surely from the Burning Bush, receiving holiness from the Angel in flame." That holocaust prefiguratively represents the holocaust of Christ on Calvary. Not only does the Burning Bush represent the Incarnation, it also represents the Redemption, because the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, even though it was done by a crucifixion and not by burning, was a holocaust in the spiritual sense. So here we have the depicting of a holocaust, the sacrifice of Christ, and we see depicted here two things: his Divinity, which could not in any way be sacrificed or touched or harmed, standing above his Humanity, but joined to it by hypostatic union in the love of the Holy Spirit.

        We may even see, on another level, the Soul of Christ, which in the sacrifice of Calvary separated itself for three days from the Body. The Angel in flame depicts the holocaust of Calvary by standing apart, separated from the Body. The Burning Bush represents also the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, in which the Body and Blood of Christ are symbolically separated from his Soul in order that we may have a bloodless renewal and repetition of the Sacrifice of Calvary, and it illustrates why, around the altar of the Sacrifice, we have a sanctuary, with the voice of God telling us that the ground on which we stand is holy ground.

        Johnson goes on to say that on Calvary Jesus presented Himself as the Son of God made man, sent by the Father, conceived of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary, who was beside his Cross. The faithful of God receive holiness also from the Sorrowful Heart of Mary, itself receiving holiness from the Sacred Heart of her Crucified Son, two Hearts aflame with love for God, two Hearts in a holocaust of love. So, he says, not only does the Burning Bush represent the Incarnation, not only does it represent the Redemption, but it also represents the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, abiding throughout all of history and giving forth their flames of love. In that sense he sees that the bush aflame represents the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and the angel aflame, the Sacred Heart of Jesus. And, as he says, it is not that the bush is providing the flame that comes to the angel, it's the flame coming from the angel that envelopes the bush.

        I might add that we also see a representation of the Resurrection. The Soul of Jesus came back and reunited itself to his Body, and from then on his Body was to live forever without being consumed. The Burning Bush represents the glorified Body of Christ, which burns but is not consumed; and it represents the Resurrection because it shows Christ's Soul coming back, being sent back to his Body as an Angel. It represents not only his Resurrection, but also our resurrection, because Christ came to save us and to make us part of Him in his Mystical Body. Here we can see also represented the souls of the just coming back to join their bodies to live forever as glorified persons in Heaven. That is represented in the Burning Bush only by tropological derivation, but it is there. Then how well we can see the argument of Our Lord, when He says, "He is the God, not of the dead but of the living," because this is a depiction of the life of God, Who is Eternal Life; of Christ, the Eternal Word of God, Who is our Redeemer; of Our Lady, who next to the Humanity of Our Lord, is the greatest of all creatures; and then of all others who are saved by Christ and who will live forever in Heaven.

        Finally, even the names Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are figures that represent God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.1 Abraham, the "father of many." because God the Father is the Father of God the Son, and is also, with God the Son, the Spirator of God the Holy Spirit, prefigures God the Father. Isaac, "he laughs," prefigures God the Son, because in the eternal generation by which God the Father generates God the Son, He does this by an intellectual act, by that act of "laughing" which is the joy of God the Father in the generation of God the Son. And Jacob. "he grabs the heel," represents God the Holy Spirit, because, in the infinite dynamism of the Holy Trinity, God the Father being infinitely powerful and God the Son being infinitely powerful, could be compared figuratively to two strong wrestlers. What does one wrestler do to throw down the other? He grabs his heel and throws him over. Now, the name Jacob, "he grabs the heel," presupposes the infinite love of the Father for the Son and of the Son for the Father, so that neither overwhelms the other, because they are one God and both Persons are infinite, but rather the Holy Spirit is spirated and eternally exists. Hence, the Holy Spirit is represented by the name Jacob.

        In the episode of the Burning Bush we can see, not only a truly historical miracle illustrating the eternal existence of God, but also a prefigurement of the Incarnation, Sacrifice on Calvary, and Resurrection of Christ, together with a depicting of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and of the Final Resurrection of the just at the end of the world. The full dimensions of the vision of Moses show the force of the argument of Jesus: "He is the God, not of the dead, but of the living."

        The episode illustrates the four senses of Sacred Scripture. The historical sense regards the real happening of the Burning Bush and of the Voice of God, as well as the mission given to Moses at this time. The allegorical sense regards the portrait of Christ in the Bush, especially in his Incarnation, Sacrifice on Calvary, Resurrection, and Real Presence in the Most Holy Eucharist. The tropological sense regards the moral application of the happening to the body, soul, and heart of Mary, and then to the lives of all the just. The anagogical sense regards the signature of the Three Divine Persons upon the episode and the Final Resurrection of the just at the end of the world.2

This article is adapted from a retreat conference given by Msgr. John F. McCarthy in Rome on November 2, 1990.


1. "Here is signified the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity, of the Three in One, as say St. Basil and Severianus in his Catena. For the name of God, thrice repeated, signifies the unity of essence in the Three Persons. Again, Abraham represents God the Father, Isaac the Son, Jacob the Holy Spirit, Who proceeds from Abraham through Isaac, that is, from the Father through the Son" (Cornelius a Lapide, commenting on Exod 3:6).

2. Cornelius a Lapide (on Exod 3:2) identifies the four senses of the episode as follows: 1) Literal sense: The fire in the Bush signifies God burning and afflicting the Jews through the Egyptians but not consuming them. 2) Allegorical sense: The fire in the Bush is God in the flesh, the Word made flesh (St. Gregory the Great, St. Cyril against Eutyches); it is God conceived in the Blessed Virgin and born without damaging her virginity (Theodoret, Rupert, St. Bernard, St. Gregory of Nyssa); it is the Word of God on the Cross (St. Clement of Alexandria). 3) Tropological sense: The fire in the Bush signifies both tribulation in the holy man and the fire of charity in the perfect man. 4) Anagogical sense: The fire in the Bush is the light and happiness of beatitude in the glorified body and soul of those in Heaven (St. Ambrose).

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