by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
During this Lenten season, I have been reflecting upon the 40 years that the Israelites spent wandering in the desert before their entrance into the Promised Land. The church, in selecting the Lenten Mass readings — as well as the Office of Readings for the Liturgy of the Hours that bishops, priests and deacons pray every day — draws heavily upon the Old Testament accounts of the Exodus event.
I noticed the circumstances for the Israelites frequently got worse before they got better. I also noted the fickleness of God’s people. Despite everything God had done to liberate and provide for his people, when a new adversity came, they immediately began to moan and complain against Moses and God.
After Moses had experienced the revelation of the burning bush and had accepted the mission the Lord had given to him, he returned to Egypt and assembled the Israelite elders. He and his brother Aaron told them that God desired to liberate them and they worked “signs” that convinced them of the authenticity of the claims of Moses.
Yet, when Moses requested that Pharaoh allow the Israelites to go into the desert to offer sacrifices to God, Pharaoh reacted harshly. He accused the Israelites of being lazy for making such a request and he increased their workload. The Israelite foremen are angered by the impossible expectations that have been placed upon them. They directed their anger not at Pharaoh who has unjustly increased their workload, but at Moses for putting the Israelites “into a bad odor with Pharaoh” (Ex 5:21).
When Moses told the Israelites that God intended to liberate them from Egypt and to give back their ancestral lands, “they would not listen to him because of their dejection and hard slavery” (Ex 6:9). After the 10 plagues finally compelled Pharaoh to let the Israelites go, the Egyptians were so eager for the departure of the Israelites that they willingly handed over their silver and gold to their former slaves.
Once the Israelites were gone, Pharaoh again changed his mind and with his army pursued God’s people. The Israelites looked up and saw the power and might of Pharaoh’s army advancing upon them. Once again they complained to Moses: “Were there no burial places in Egypt that you had to bring us out here to die in the desert? Why did you do this to us? Why did you bring us out of Egypt? Did we not tell you this in Egypt, when we said, ‘Leave us alone. Let us serve the Egyptians? Far better for us to be slaves of the Egyptians than to die in the desert’” (Ex 14: 11-12).
After the Lord brought them safely through the sea and destroyed Pharaoh and his army, it did not take the Israelites long to find new reasons to complain. They were unhappy with the lack of food and grumbled against Moses: “Would that we had died at the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread! But you [Moses] had to lead us into this desert to make the whole community die of famine!” (Ex 16: 3).
In response to their complaining, God provided quail and manna daily for the nourishment of the Israelites. Then, the people complained to Moses because of a lack of water: “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt? Was it just to have us die here of thirst with our children and our livestock?” (Ex 17: 3)
While Moses was up on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, the Israelites committed the ultimate act of infidelity as they resorted to idolatry. The people complained to Aaron that they did not know what happened to Moses and asked Aaron to make them “a god who will be our leader” (Ex 32: 1). Aaron made the infamous “golden calf” for them to worship. Having not only forgotten Moses but, more importantly, abandoned the true God who just rescued them from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites preferred to make their own god whom they could control and whose “laws” they could dictate to conform to their desires.
When the Israelites finally made it to the Promised Land, they were panicked by the scouting reports of the strength, number and size of the current inhabitants. They immediately reverted to their seemingly natural state of grumbling: “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt, or that here in the desert we were dead! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land only to have us fall by the sword? Our wives and little ones will be taken as booty. Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt? . . . Let us appoint a leader and go back to Egypt” (Nm 14: 2-4).
It is easy for me to shake my head at the foolishness of the Israelites and ask myself: How could they be so ungrateful and dumb? How could they not perceive the pattern of God constantly assisting them in their need?
Yet, these passages are like a mirror for me. God has so incredibly blessed me. Time and time again in my life, he has helped me through situations that, at the moment, appeared impossible and completely overwhelming. The Lord has throughout my life surrounded me with remarkably good people to assist me and support me.
Yet, as soon as a new problem or challenge arises, I seem to forget all that the Lord has done for me. It is so tempting to yield to fear, which in turn leads to grumbling and complaining.
The infidelity of the Israelites contrasts with the fidelity of Jesus to his Father’s will. As Jesus kneels in the Garden of Gethsemane, perspiring blood because of his knowledge of what is about to happen, he asks his Father to remove this cup of suffering. However, Jesus then immediately prays: “Father, not my will, but thy will be done.”
These final days of Lent remind us of the remarkable love of God revealed in Jesus. This special season invites us to see everything through the prism of his paschal mystery — the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.
We have so much more to be grateful for than the people of the Exodus. Jesus has opened for us the possibility of something so much greater than an earthly promised land. Jesus offers us abundant life in this world and a destiny to live with him forever.
I pray that all of us emerge from Lent with a deeper gratitude for God’s faithful love for us. If we recall on a daily basis how blessed we have been and are, then when adversity confronts us, our natural response will not be fear and grumbling, but grateful trust.
Sometimes things do get worse before they get better. Yet, we know that, as sure as Jesus rose on Easter, the Lord will pull forth good from our adversities. For the disciple of Jesus, there can be no doubt that, in a world seemingly dominated by sin and death, mercy and life are the victors.