O sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai Mountain: Come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free (Christian Prayer, 121).
In the antiphon of the Magnificat at evening prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours today, we pray the second “O” Antiphon of Advent: “O sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free” (Christian Prayer: Liturgy of the Hours, 1976, page 121). The leader of ancient Israel was the giver of the law and prophet par excellence Moses. And now we beg the One Who gave Moses the law, the Embodied Law Himself, God Incarnate, to “Come!” without delay and set us free from injustice within our hearts and in our world as Isaiah had prophesied:
…he shall judge the poor with justice, and decide fairly for the land’s afflicted. He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Justice shall be the band around his waist and faithfulness a belt upon his hips (Isaiah 11:4-5).
The connection between this “O” Antiphon and the passage from Isaiah is readily apparent. That said, this is far from the only locus where we may enter more deeply into today’s antiphon. Its imagery is extremely is rich in Old Testament imagery which served as the basis for much contemplation of the Church Fathers. By contemplating alongside them, we are drawn deeper into what this “O” Antiphon is calling us to today.
We recall that Jesus tells us He came “not to abolish but to fulfill” the law and that heaven and earth will not pass away until every iota of the law is fulfilled (cf., Matthew 5:17-18). Reflecting on this Gospel, St. Gregory of Nyssa writes, “For truly, to those who are able to see, the mystery of the cross is especially contemplated in the Law. Wherefore the Gospel says… that not one dot, not one little stroke, shall disappear from the Law, signifying in these words the vertical and horizontal lines by which the form of the cross is drawn” (The Life of Moses, Book II. 151). As heaven and earth continue to exist, we are confident that the fullness of the law is still being realized in our time and place. Therefore, as we reflect upon this second “O” Antiphon, we ask ourselves how the Lawgiver is active in our lives and what He is communicating to us.
In Sermon 7 on the Burning Bush, St. Augustine is troubled that the bush is not consumed by the Fire of the Lord. From Sacred Scripture we read, “Meanwhile Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro…Leading the flock beyond the wilderness, he came to the mountain of God, Horeb. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him as fire flaming out of a bush. When he looked, although the bush was on fire, it was not being consumed. So Moses decided, ‘I must turn aside to look at this remarkable sight. Why does the bush not burn up?’” (Exodus 3:1-3). Reflecting on the significance of this scene, Augustine concludes that the bush symbolizes the Israelites who “kept on struggling against the law of God” (Sermon 7.2). Their hearts were hardened and they did not allow His commands to permeate and transform their hearts of stone to hearts of flesh (cf., Ezekiel 36:26). Augustine writes, “If that people were not represented by thorns [i.e., the bush], Christ would not be crowned by them with thorns” (Sermon 7.2). As we reflect upon the burning bush, we ask ourselves, “How and why is my heart not consumed by the fire of the Lord?” Let us further excavate the stony, desert landscapes of our hearts and uncover the source of its hardness. Are we worshipping false gods, perhaps, by prioritizing others’ opinions of us rather than seeking to align ourselves with the will of God, which is outlined for us in His Law? Are we being seduced by the three perennial temptations of power, prestige, and possessions and neglecting our suffering neighbors, “the least of these” that manifest Christ’s presence to us (cf., Matt 25:40-45)?
As we search our heart for the source of its hardness, let us further consider “the holy law” given to Moses on “Sinai mountain”. For St, Gregory and St. Augustine, it was not a trivial detail that there should be two separate tablets of the Ten Commandments on which the law was “inscribed by God’s own finger” (cf., Exodus 31:18), nor that Moses should break both tablets upon discovering the Israelites worshipping the golden calf (cf., Exodus 32:19). The stone tablets of the law hold a double and interrelated meaning. First, as discussed above, they represent the stony quality of our hardened hearts (cf., Ezekiel 36:26). Second, as St. Gregory explains, manufactured from the earth, the stone tablets point to the creation and formation of the human person. St. Gregory writes, “…the true Lawgiver (i.e., the Lord), of whom Moses was a type, cut the tables of human nature for himself from our earth…” (Life of Moses, Book II.216). The Creator Himself has inscribed the law of love onto our hearts. We see here a direct reference to the second story of Creation “…the Lord God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being…” (Gen 2:7). And what does our human nature consist of? Although not expounded upon by Gregory, we find a detailed treatment of this by St. Augustine. Our human nature consists of one thing: participation in the Divine Love. St. Augustine writes, and the Church fully embraces (cf., CCC 2055, “The Decalogue must be interpreted in light of this twofold yet single commandment of love…”) that the two tablets of the Ten Commandments represent to us the twofold command to love (cf., Matt 22:36-40). On the one tablet is written the first three commandments to love God and on the second tablet is written the remaining seven to love our neighbor:
“…Now the fullness of the law is charity (Rom 13:8-10)…Because just as there are two commandments of love, on which depend, as the Lord says, the whole law and the prophets, and thereby he shows clearly enough that love is the fullness of the law, so too those ten commandments were given on two tables; three that is are said to have been inscribed on one table and seven on the other. Just as the three first belong to love of God, so the seven others are assigned to love of neighbor” (Sermon 33.2).
Continuing our reflection on the scene of the Israelites and the golden calf, we read that as Moses approached the camp, “…he saw the calf and the dancing. Then Moses’ anger burned, and he threw the tablets down and broke them on the base of the mountain” (Exodus 32:19). Notice the “burning” of Moses’ righteous anger in this scene differs greatly from the burning bush scene in which the bush, which is representative of the stubborn Israelites and our hardened hearts as well, was not consumed by the fire of the Lord. Here we see that Moses is consumed by the righteous fire of the virtue of justice which causes him to break the tablets. Here, we see a clear connection to the passage from Isaiah above. There, Isaiah foretold that the ideal Davidic King will be clothed with Justice, “strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth,” and set things right by His judgment (Is. 11:4-5).
The overcoming of wickedness and injustice is apparent in St. Gregory’s reflections on the Sinai episode as well. St. Gregory writes that the broken tablets represent our fallen human nature, which the Israelites’ worshipping of idols makes clear, “…the history concerning the tables calls the ‘voice of drunken singing,’ the tables fell to the earth and were broken” (Life of Moses, Book II.216). In His Incarnation, Christ restores our human nature, as St. Gregory continues, “…When this took place, our nature regained its unbroken character, becoming immortal through the letters written by his finger…” (Life of Moses, Book II.216).
Having reflected upon two scenes on two mountains in the Old Testament, i.e., the burning bush on Mount Horeb and the Ten Commandments given on Mount Sinai, we return now to our petition to our “sacred Lord of ancient Israel”: “Come! Stretch out your mighty hand” and “set us free!”. We make this petition with confidence as we recall His saving power in the splitting of the sea and the rescue of the Israelites from the bondage of slavery in Egypt (cf., Exodus 17:8-16), which was a foreshadowing of Christ Crucified, as St. Gregory tells us. Moses outstretched his arms and the sea split in two to allow safe passage of the stubborn hearted Israelites. So, too, when our Savior outstretched His arms on the tree of the Cross (cf., Galatians 3:13; Acts 5:30), the veil of the temple split in two (cf., Matt 27:51) and the whole of humankind has been granted safe passage to our Heavenly Homeland for Christ Crucified is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (cf., John 4:6).
Therefore, for our final consideration, we search our hearts and ask, how will we respond? Will we remain stubborn like our ancestors (cf., Psalm 78:8; Deut 32:5) and prefer the bondage of slavery (cf., Exodus 16:3)? Or will we allow the fire of our Savior’s love for us to consume us and transfigure our stony hearts as it did Moses? This Advent as we beg our Savior to come and come quickly, let us also commit ourselves to following Him, the embodied Law, in imitation of the great Moses, the great prophet and lawgiver.
Your Sister in Christ,
Vanessa Crescio is an accountant with the Archdiocese of Saint Louis. She holds an MBA from the University of Notre Dame and an MTS from Newman University. She is interested in thinking through co-responsibility in the Church and developing leadership programs to form Catholics to serve the Church with not only their knowledge, skills, and abilities but with the servant heart of Christ.