Column: Burning bush lights fire in Moses, Hebrews

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

In time of drought, the danger of a grass fire increases drastically. A spark from a campfire, a discarded cigarette, a lightning strike from a thunderstorm — any of these can ignite the countryside and set it ablaze. It doesn’t take much. Still, something must begin the fire. It doesn’t happen on its own.

Although it gets extremely warm in the desert, it would take a lot of heat for spontaneous combustion. But that is what we hear happening in Sunday’s first reading — Ex 3: 1-8a, 13-15. Moses is tending a flock in the desert. They are scavenging for food, trying to find a blade of grass or a weed to eat.

Perhaps they are at an oasis, since there is vegetation growing in this area, which would explain the bush that Moses notices. He must have been observing it for a while, because he realizes that even though the bush is burning, it is not being consumed by the fire.

This sight is full of wonder. In the first place, it was unusual for the bush to catch on fire by itself. It was even more unusual for the bush not to be consumed by the fire. But most unusual of all was the voice that spoke out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!”

It is God, calling Moses to undertake the mission of liberating the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. In a sense, God wants to set Moses on fire. Moses will need a lot of enthusiasm and determination to complete this task. He will need to communicate that to the Hebrew people, to organize them and motivate them. Moses will be the spark to set the Hebrew people on fire.

Although the bush is burning, it is not consumed by the fire. Similarly, the fire that will burn in Moses’ bones will not consume him, will not destroy him. It is not a destructive force, but an energizing one. Moses has no reason to fear the mission God is entrusting to him. It will not destroy him.

Why the bush? Why does God choose to appear in such a lowly plant, rather than something more impressive, like a tree? Some suggest that God chooses the lowly bush in order to identify with the Hebrew people, brought low through slavery. The bush projects humility, rather than pride or arrogance.

In any case, the burning bush is a significant sign of God’s presence. It is the way that God is revealed to Moses. This encounter makes that spot holy ground. That is why God calls out to Moses, “Come no nearer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.”

Moses does not encounter God in a temple or shrine, but rather in the midst of his everyday work, while tending the flock. We also should be open to the possibility of encountering God as we go about our daily life. Who knows what God will call us to? Will that be the spark to set us on fire?

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