Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Prophet Like Moses

(4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

All of the gospels make significant use of the literary device of irony, but the ironies of St. Mark can seem like the starkest. Today we hear one of those very ironic passages. As Jesus teaches and heals in the synagogue at Caparnaum, we notice that the only one who gets what is going on is the unclean spirit. The people are “astonished” at this “new teaching with authority,” but they are still asking, “What is this?” They don’t really know who Jesus is, but the demon, the unclean spirit, knows right away when it cries out, “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” This ironic pattern will continue in our reading of St. Mark’s gospel; the spiritual forces of evil recognize the identity and the import of the person of Jesus right away, while the human beings—including Jesus’ own disciples—continue to fail to get it. This human failure to recognize Jesus for who he really is goes on until the moment of his death on the cross. Then, finally, someone gets it when the centurion keeping watch over the execution proclaims, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

Mark’s almost brutal portrayal of Jesus’ disciples’ failure to truly recognize him places an intense burden on us who call ourselves Christians. Each of us must have an answer to the question, “Who is Jesus, and what does he mean?” Do an experiment if you wish. Hang out at the bus stop or at the Palisades Mall and ask people who Jesus is. They will tell you a lot of different things. They might say, “The Son of God,” “My personal Savior,” “One of the prophets of Allah,” or “a prophet of the Second Temple period,” and who knows what else. And all of these answers are more or less true, but they aren’t the whole story of who Jesus is. In fact, we can never know the whole and full significance and meaning of Jesus Christ, because he is a reflection of the infinite meaning and significance of God the Father. Who Jesus is for us is not then another piece of knowledge that we can get to know and perhaps comprehend, but an infinite mystery to be walked into and lived.

So where to begin our journey of getting to know and stepping into the mystery of Jesus Christ? Well, there’s no better place than the Sacred Scriptures themselves. In this regard, the first reading we hear today from the book of Deuteronomy is particularly significant. In his great farewell speech to the Israelites, Moses promises that God will raise up for them a prophet like himself. This promise of the “prophet like Moses” is one of the great themes of the Old Testament; the people of the Old Covenant looked forward, and continue to look forward, the appearance of this new Moses. We Christians know that this prophet like Moses has appeared in the Incarnation of the Word, in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. This means that taking a look at Moses is one of the primary ways we come to understand Jesus.

So what did Moses do? First of all, as their leader, he connected the people to God. He went up the mountain to converse with God and returned to the people with God’s blessings and instructions for them. And so it is with Jesus; Jesus ascends the Cross for us to bring about, in his own blood, a new and indestructible connection between our limited humanity and God’s infinite and blessed divinity. Moses was a teacher; he gave the people God’s commandments and the gift of the Law that they might imitate the holiness of their God. And so it is with Jesus; he reveals the Kingdom of God and teaches us how we are to live as its holy citizens. But most of all, it was Moses who freed the people from their slavery in Egypt, and, bringing them safely through the waters of the Red Sea, set them on their way to the Promised Land. In this aspect Moses is a type of Jesus in the Lord’s most precious work, by which he frees us from sin, leads us through the waters of baptism, and sets us confidently on the journey through the wilderness of this life toward the Promised Land of heaven.

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