For the last three weeks, the weekday Lectionary readings have led us through the book of Exodus and into Leviticus. This week we'll move into Numbers and then Deuteronomy and Joshua. We returned to the story of the Exodus this past Sunday for the connection between the manna in the desert and the Bread of Life discourse from the Gospel of John.
Throughout our time in the Book of Exodus, I've found two themes occupying my mind: the immanence of God to the Exodus Israelites and their inability, in spite of that immanence, to trust in Him and live up to their end of the Covenant.
The Israelites of the Exodus could see the power and glory of the Lord. After the plagues in Egypt, culminating in the Passover and the death of the first-born, God led the Israelites out of Egypt, going "before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light that they might travel by day and by night; the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people." (Exodus 13:21-22) Yet, in spite of this visible presence, when the Egyptian army pursued them, they feared and wanted to return to Egypt.
So the pillar of cloud/fire stopped the Egyptians while the waters of the Red Sea were parted, allowing the Israelites to escape. God then allowed the Egyptians to pursue them, only to be swallowed up by the waters of the sea. The pursuing army was destroyed by the hand of God, and the Israelites knew it. "Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the seashore. And Israel saw the great work which the Lord did against the Egyptians, and the people feared the Lord; and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses." (Exodus 14:30-31) Yet only three days later, the people were once again upset with Moses (and God) because of bitter water!
Again and again, the people would grumble and complain against God, and again and again, God would provide for them, giving them flakes of manna and quail to eat and water from the rock to drink. A little gratefulness would be understandable.
When Moses went up on Mt. Sinai "Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and the smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mounting quaked greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder." (Exodus 19:18-19) "Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel." (Exodus 24:17) In the shadow of all of this glory, "the people gathered themselves together to Aaron, and said to him, 'Up, make us gods, who shall go before us." (Exodus 32:1) With God's power visible before them, after having been miraculously fed in the desert and delivered from the Egyptians, this seems almost unfathomable. And yet, we continue to create our own gods everyday. We might not fashion our gold into a calf, yet we still look to our gold to save us.
Even after the golden calf incident, God remained visibly, tangibly present to the Exodus Israelites through the Tent of Meeting. "Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud abode upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would go onward; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not go onward till the day that it was taken up. For throughout all their journeys the cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel." (Exodus 40:34-38)
All that we get today is a single flame in the sanctuary lamp that tells us that the Blessed Sacrament in present in the tabernacle. The glory of God is hidden in the mundane. Is it any wonder then that we are prone to losing the plot? Yet while the Israelites were saved from slavery in Egypt, we have received a much greater grace. We have been redeemed by the blood of the lamb.
After all that they had seen with their own eyes, the Israelites so quickly forgot. They forgot the power and the glory and the merciful kindness of the Lord, and they forgot the humiliation and shame of slavery in Egypt. They grew tired of the desert and the manna, and they longed to return to Egypt. We grow tired of ascetic detachment from the things of this world, and we take for granted the extreme gift that comes to us in the Eucharist. In spite of all that we know and all of the evidence to the contrary, the allure and glamour of sin still beckons to us.
So where does that leave us? Are we worse off than the Israelites of the Exodus? By no means! If anything, we learn from the past that signs and wonders are no guarantee of faithfulness. God’s ultimate self-revelation took place in the incarnation, and we are the beneficiaries of His redeeming sacrifice. Those who claim that they would believe if only they had a sign refuse to accept the signs that are present, even today. 70,000 witnessed the miracle of the sun at Fatima. Numerous miraculous cures have occurred at Lourdes. Scientific tests have been performed on the particles of the Eucharistic miracle of Lanciano.
God is immanent. He is present to us. He loves us, and he remains true to his covenant. We just need to let go of Egypt.