09 March 2010

Oratio, Misericordia, Ieiunium

In today’s Officium Lectionis -- Office of Readings, Moses ‘moram faceret descendendi de monte – delayed to descend from the mount’ (Exodus 32:1). Moses, who prefigures Jesus as a deliverer of God’s people, is on the mountain communing with God. This represents the pinnacle of intimacy with our Lord, a heightened intensity. Moses in on the top of the mountain, and for us this represents the top of the spiritual mountain, where anyone who is serious about the spiritual life longs to be.

At the bottom of that mountain is Joshua, who represents those who are indeed serious about their relationship with God, but struggle to advance up the spiritual mountain. ‘Reversus est Moyses de monte – Moses returned from the mount’ (Exodus 32:15); and there, waiting for him was Joshua. The spiritual life is a gruelling battle: trying to grow closer to God while at the same time being subjected to the often ungodly happenings which occur in our world. Moses descending from the mountain and meeting up with Joshua offers us a beautiful image: even though it is an immense struggle to ascend the spiritual mountain, Jesus, in the figure of Moses, does come down from the mountain to meet us right where we are. He does not abandon us!

Saint Peter Chrysologus tells us that oratio, misericordia, ieiunium – prayer, mercy, fasting are a unit (cf. Sermo XLIII). Joshua, representing us as a people of God is at the bottom of that mountain at prayer. He has been there since Moses went up the mountain, thus he surely has not satisfied himself corporeally, but instead is trying to fill up his soul with God, listening for His gentle whispers, knowing that man lives ‘in omni verbo quod egreditur de ore Domini – according to every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord’ (Deuteronomy 8:3).

When Moses and Joshua meet at the bottom of the mountain, Joshua said to him: ‘Ululatus pugnæ auditor in castris – The shouts of battle is heard in the camp’ (Exodus 32:17). The ‘shouts of battle’, in other words, the hustle and bustle, the ways of the world are a distraction. While Moses was on that mountain, God heard His people as they were fashioning an idol, a molten calf. God said to Moses: ‘Vade, descende – Go, descend’ (Exodus 32:7). There’s an intimation here of the Incarnation: God the Father, sending His Son to His people. And for what reason? Misericordia – Mercy!

What’s interesting about God’s mercy in this biblical account is that our Lord’s wrath was intent on destroying His people. Certainly that was to be our sentence until God’s mercy was showered upon the world by means of the Incarnation. While it may appear that the perfection of God doesn’t seem so perfect because the pleas of Moses are able to change God’s Mind about destroying His people, what we are actually experiencing from this account is that Moses, a figure of Jesus, communing with His Father, understanding the will of His Father, as they are One with the Holy Spirit, surely is not bent on destroying His people, those He created in His Image, which He found to be ‘valde bona – very good’ (Genesis 1:31). In Moses, also, we learn something about what should be a part of our prayer life. Saint Peter Chrysologus told us: prayer, mercy, and fasting are a unit. God does not change His Mind with Moses, but instead is prompting him to pray for the mercy of those who are making an idol for themselves, giving Moses the opportunity to seek the mercy of the Lord; in other words, our Lord is prompting us to ora pro nobis peccatoribus – pray for us sinners, that is, all the people of God, for indeed we all are sinners. This is not only in word but in deed. For we cannot expect God’s mercy, if we do not dimittimus debitoribus nostris – forgive our debtors.

That same homily from Saint Peter Chrysologus continues by proclaiming that if we do not close our ear to others, then God will open His ear to us. In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives us the definitive answer about mercy. Our Saviour explains that we must forgive seventy times seven times (cf. Matthew 18:22), in other words – always! Offering mercy becomes easier when we ourselves experience its beauty frequently through the sacrament of mercy. It also becomes easier through unceasing prayer (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:17), growing ever closer to our Lord, being surrounded by His unfathomable love. Mercy also comes easier through fasting: our own bodily needs will bring comprehension to our need to show mercy, to be forgiving, to rely completely on God.