Thursday of the Fourth Week of Lent
Psalm 105:19-20, 21-22, 23
Today’s liturgy is all about Moses. Moses in the first reading, Moses in the psalm, and Moses in the gospel. Moses has been with us — a companion on our Lenten journey — since the Second Sunday of Lent when we saw him on the holy mountain in conversation with Elijah and the transfigured Christ.
And the People Rose Up to Play
While, during the Exodus, Moses was absent, hidden with God for forty days and forty nights on Mount Sinai, the people grew restless and impatient. They turned to Aaron and said, “Up, make us gods which shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what has become of him” (Ex 32:1). Aaron, in an attempt to quiet the people, gave in to their murmurings. You all know the story of the molten calf. I am always struck by what happens after the presentation of the golden calf to the people. Aaron proposes a feast, a party really, to distract the people and keep them happy. In few words, the text conjures up quite a scene. “The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play” (Ex 32:6).
Holding One’s Ground Before God
This is where today’s First Reading begins. God sends Moses down to break up the party. “Go down at once to your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, for they have become depraved” (Ex 32:7). Moses’ obedience is very unbenedictine. He does not, “with the quick feet of obedience, follow by action the voice of him who gives the order” (RB V:8). He does not immediately run down the mountain into the madness of the crowd. He holds his ground before God, and has recourse to prayer.
The Prayer of Moses
Moses’ compelling prayer became one of the most poignant Offertory Antiphons of the Mass: Precatus est Moyses in conspectu Domini Dei sui. “And Moses besought the Lord his God” (Ex 32:11). Listen to a recording of the piece or sing it through for yourself if you have time today. Do it as lectio divina. All the intensity of Moses’ prayer passes into the melody. Listening to it, one has the impression of being right there next to Moses, face to face with God on Mount Sinai. In the prayer of Moses one hears already the accents of the prayer of Jesus crucified to the Father: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).
Standing in the Breach
God offered to consume the people, to annihilate them utterly, and to give Moses a fresh start. The Responsorial Psalm evoked the scene for us: “For this he said he would destroy them, but Moses, the man he had chosen, stood in the breach before him, to turn back his anger from destruction” (Ps 105:23). “Let me alone, says God, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation” (Ex 32:10). Quite a proposal! To be free of all the headaches caused by a stiff-necked, murmuring, fickle people, and to start all over again! But Moses cannot accept it. He refuses God’s offer.
Moses Sticks to the Sinners
Saint Augustine, preaching on this very text, has an astonishing commentary on Moses’ prayer. Listen to Augustine, “Moses sticks to the sinners; he prays for the sinners. And how does he pray? This is a wonderful proof of his love, brothers and sisters. How does he pray? Notice something I’ve often spoken of, how his love is almost that of a mother. When God threatened that sacrilegious people, Moses’ maternal instincts were roused, and on their behalf he stood up to the anger of God. ‘Lord,’ he said, ‘if you will forgive them this sin, forgive, but if not, blot me out from the book you have written.’ What sure maternal and paternal instincts, how sure his reliance, as he said this, on the mercy and justice of God! He knew that because God is just he wouldn’t destroy a just man, and because he is merciful he would pardon sinners” (Sermon 88.24).
Moses Points to Christ
In the Gospel, Jesus makes it clear that their rejection of Moses is what led his contemporaries to reject him. “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (Jn 5:46). Jesus identifies himself with Moses. Jesus did not question the Mosaic authorship of the book of Exodus. Today’s passage was, for Jesus, one in which Moses wrote of him. Moses points to Christ.
Christ Our Mediator
The prayer of Moses, standing in the breach, withstanding God as a mediator, “sticking to sinners” and pleading their cause with all the attachment of a mother to her children, is given us as a figure of the prayer of Christ. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). Christ, says the Letter to the Hebrews, “is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb 7:35).
The Prayer of Christ
And what about us? Are we not like the people in the plain dancing about the golden calf and loving the distraction of the party? Stiff-necked, fickle, impatient, and easily swayed? All of the above. But our hope is in the prayer of Christ to the Father, and that prayer is made for us, here and now, in the Eucharist. We have more than Moses on the mountain; we have Christ standing before the Father’s face. Because of that prayer, the final outcome of our exodus is assured. We shall arrive, as today’s Collect says, “uninjured at the paschal feasts.”