Hornets, Miracles, and a Heart Aflame
It was a reduced and humbled band of Israelites that set out on that somber day to begin again its treck to the promised land. Abashed and penitent (or at least making a stab at being so), they took off their gala ornaments and, with a reluctant Moses in the lead, this “stiff-necked people” took their leave of the Mountain of Covenant, Sinai (Ex 33:2-17).
We know the story of Israel’s repeated grumblings and infidelities. Again and again the Lord had to show them in the only way their wayward hearts could grasp, who was the Shepherd and what was good for them. As he would tell them much later through the prophet (Hos 11:8-9), his heart ever stands overwhelmed with a pity far, far beyond their ability to defeat it, for he is God, not a man, the Holy One present among them. Would he send an ambassador to accompany them? Perhaps; but Moses can’t accept these terms. Who wants an angel, when the Lord himself is his self-confessed friend? Unless, of course, the angel be the very Son, and God himself.
Panic and Flight and an Army of Hornets
It is the never-ending battle between good and evil. Israel’s story is our own. The setting is our collective as well as our individual pilgrimage from our already broken beginnings through hazardous enemy territories and challenging desert conditions. We are in the midst of the battle every day, and have been ever since our first parents ate of that forbidden tree. But we have a quite remarkable passage in the Holy Book where God sets in perspective for us not only the beginning and the end, but the breadth, the height and the depth of the divine dynamic, the wisdom of his merciful interventions in human and even cosmic history. He is always on our side, weak and sinful though we be. This is what he says:
I will have the fear of me precede you, so that I will throw into panic every nation you reach. I will make all your enemies turn from you in flight, and ahead of you I will send hornets to send the Hivites, Canaanites, and Hittites out of your way. But not in one year will I drive them all out before you, else the land will become so desolate that the wild beasts will multiply against you. Instead, I will drive them out little by little before you, until you have grown numerous enough to take possession of the land (Ex 23:27-30; cf Dt 7:20, 27; Jos 24:12; Gen. 15:16).
Nowhere does the written word of God deal in trivialities. Types and symbols, images and metaphors, yes; these abound. But the trivial, never. The Holy Spirit does not engage in casual parlance. He does not tell his stories merely to entertain us nor to satisfy our fascination with historical research. Rather, beneath every word, every line in the Holy Book there lies the life-and-death seriousness of truth. And the truth is Christ. All of the Scripture is about Christ and our life in Christ.
Can a more soul-shaking expression of this seriousness be imagined than the words of Jesus himself as he makes his way up the hill of Calvary to the place of his crucifixion? Consider the implications of his response to the women who weep for him:
“Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me. Weep for yourselves and for your children. The days are coming when they will say, ‘Happy are the sterile, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed’ Then they will begin saying to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’, and to the hills, ‘Cover us’. If they do these things in the green wood, what will happen in the dry?” (Lk 23:28-31).
Jesus is telling them that he does not deem the screaming pain and the horrendous sacrilegious murder of the God-Man as meriting a single tear when set in comparison with the tragic destiny of his people. What we are dealing with here is Love, which is God himself. Of this Love it is said,
Stern as death is Love; relentless as the nether world is devotion. Its flames are a blazing fire. Deep waters cannot quench Love, nor floods sweep it away. Were one to offer all he owns to purchase Love, he would be roundly mocked (Sg 8:6,7).
God often found it necessary to show anger with his people, to threaten them, to punish them. He found it necessary to give them a Law and numerous statutes to show them the way of wisdom leading to the Promised Land of eternal happiness. But it must not be thought that the Law and the seriousness of his dealings with his people are to be translated as simply a somber, impersonal, frigid regimentation which he arbitrarily imposes upon them. Quite the contrary. He only shows anger when he sees his people putting themselves in the mortal danger of losing their way, of destroying themselves forever. And while panic and flight and an army of hornets are the lot of the hostile elements that try to impede Israel’s march toward the land promised to their fathers, for this chosen people there are pardon and hope, fathomless pity and a Heart aflame.
A Prophet Like Me
In fear and trembling the children of Israel had stood at the foot of Mount Sinai beseeching Moses that he, rather than the Lord, should speak to them. “Let not the Lord speak to us lest we die!” Their cry was heard: it was then that they were given the promise that they would be given another prophet from among their own kinsmen, who would speak God’s word to them just as Moses had done. They were warned that they would have to pay for it if they did not listen to the words of this promised prophet (Dt 18:15, 18f). The hope and expectation of the coming of this prophet was to color the entire ensuing history of this chosen people. We know that this Prophet has been given: in fact, the very Word of God himself. Jesus Christ came: came with this one primary mission, which was to speak God’s word to his people. In the Gospel of John we hear Jesus asserting over and over and over again that his words are not his own, but the words of the One who sent him: “I tell you what I have seen in the Father’s presence” (8:38)”; “I have not spoken on my own. No, the Father who sent me has commanded me what to say and how to speak” (12:49); “The word you hear is not mine; it comes from the Father who sent me” (14:24); “I have made known to you all that I have heard from my Father” (15:15); “The one whom God sent speaks the word of God” (3:31ff). These statement of Jesus are cited here, and there are many more. Yes, we can say that Jesus came, in the first instance, to be the Prophet who would speak God’s word to his people. But God’s gift to us in Jesus takes many forms. Being the very Word of God, he has also become our Shepherd, our Food, our Life and Resurrection. He has and continues to reveal himself in many guises. He is found on every page of the Sacred Scriptures, and it only takes a bit of discreet imagination, along with the eagerness of faith and love, to find him there.
A Prophet and More Than a Prophet
Some decades ago a musical production, Fiddler on the Roof, caught the hearts and imaginations of millions of people. It told a story of a traditional Jewish family in Russia at the time when the younger generation was beginning to feel the cultural tug toward self-determination, which in the story eventuates in the wrenching experience of letting-go on the part of the Papa. The instance of the eldest daughter is of particular interest here. She and the young tailor have finally won the permission of the Papa to marry, contrary to Papa’s plan to have her marry the butcher. In their ecstatic delirium of joy, they run off, hand in hand, to a near-by meadow where in his uncontainable happiness, running in wild circles around his beloved, he sings the delightful song, “Miracle of Miracles”. In the song he recalls stories of great miracles from the Scriptures:
Wonder of Wonders, Miracle of Miracles
God took up Daniel once again
Stood by his side and – miracle of miracles –
Walked him through the lion’s den!
Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles –
I was afraid that God would frown,
But like he did so long ago at Jericho,
God just made a wall fall down!
When Moses softened Pharaoh’s heart, that was a miracle;
When God made the waters of the Red Sea part, that was a miracle too!
But of all God’s miracles large and small
The most miraculous one of all
Is that out of a worthless lump of clay
God has made a Man today!
Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles,
God took a tailor by the hand
Turned him around and – miracle of miracles –led him to the Promised Land!
When David slew Goliath (yes!) that was a miracle.
When God gave us Manna in the wilderness, that was a miracle too.
But of all God’s miracles, large and small,
The most miraculous one of all
Is the one I thought could never be:
God has given you to me!
We as Christians, reading these lyrics, see them all as types and prefigurations of the Mystery of Christ: the Exodus with the liberation from the bondage of Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea, the Manna in the desert, the conquest of Jericho, David’s victory over Goliath and Daniel’s deliverance from the lion’s den. But as the song continues we are brought up short by the incarnational line (a “dead give-away”), that out of the clay of our lowly flesh, he has been made a man! The lyrics reach their climax in the Wonder of Wonders, that “God has given you to me!” — the great eschatological culmination of our definitive spousal Covenant with Christ. The Miracle of Miracles has its final and inevitable triumph of the eternal marriage feast of heaven. Meanwhile we can enter every day into the delightful scene – isn’t it a wonderful prayer?! – where Lovers in turn run wild circles around each other, aflame with a Fire that will never die.
It is an interesting fact that each and every human being. beginning with our first parents , is created naked. But ever since the Fall, garments have become, we might say, part of who we are. Even the angels in their various appearances are described in terms of their dazzling white garments. Jesus himself, the newborn Messiah, is described simply by his swaddling clothes (Lk 2:12), and the glorious risen Lord by his long white robe and gold sash (Rev 1:13). Most astonishingly of all, of the Holy One of Israel enthroned in heaven, it is said that the train of his garment fills the temple (Is 6:1)!
The Lord himself had become the divine tailor very early in the sacred narrative of salvation history. We are told (Gen 3:21) that he made leather garments for our first parents. Not only this, but the prophets Ezekiel (16:10) and Isaiah (61:10) show us the Lord himself clothing his bride (Israel) with the most lavish raiment imaginable. But while before Christ the people had to wash their old garments in preparation for the great Third Day (Ex 19:14), and the gold- and jewel-studded wedding garment of the bride became soiled and defiled, we in the New Dispensation are clothed in Christ himself, as St. Paul says so beautifully to his baptized converts in Galatia (3:27). We have no problem in recognizing Jesus as both Shepherd and Lamb, both High Priest and Victim, both Host at the wedding feast and the very Banquet itself. So here we discover him as both Tailor and Garment.
Panic and flight and an army of hornets remain even to this day and eternally the unfortunate portion of those who choose them. This is not to say, however, that God’s love is without a divine pity for them. We get an echo of his voice in those awesome words of the prophet Habakkuk (Hab 3:16):
At the sound my lips quiver; decay invades my bones
My legs tremble beneath me as I await the day of distress
that will come upon the people who attack us…
But for the Israel of God there remain the miracles, the Promised Land and a Heart aflame.