Opening reflection (taken from Magnificat magazine, www.magnificat.com): When Moses approached the burning bush, he seemed to be expecting to meet God. For when God called out, “Moses! Moses!” from the bush, Moses immediately answered, “Here I am.” In effect, the parable of the fig tree makes a contrast with the burning bush. It is reasonable to expect to find on a tree in full foliage branches laden with ripe fruit. Yet the healthy fig tree is as barren as the burning bush is “not consumed.” The dynamic of expectation plays out in both: Moses expects to find God in the burning bush, and Christ expects to find fruitfulness in a flourishing tree. Upon his approach, God commanded Moses, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.” St. Paul says, “Whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.” The fruitfulness of the fig tree depends on its compliance with the extraordinary efforts offered it to make it grow. We are the fig tree. If we fail to grasp this lesson, we will not stand before the tree of the cross filled with expectation for its Fruit.
(This weekend's Scripture readings are available in the New American Bible translation at the Vatican’s English website at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0839/_INDEX.HTM.)
First Reading: Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15 (Revised Standard Version)
A reading from the book of Exodus.
Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian; and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, "I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt."
When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here am I." Then he said, "Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." And he said, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. Then the LORD said, "I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
Then Moses said to God, "If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, `The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, `What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM." And he said, "Say this to the people of Israel, `I AM has sent me to you.'"
God also said to Moses, "Say this to the people of Israel, `The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you': this is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Meditation: Christians and Jews who know at least the basics of the Old Testament story will easily call to mind the story of Moses and the burning bush. For Israel, the potential of God's promise of a Promised Land to the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) begins to find its fulfillment here. For followers of Jesus, it's the beginning of a story as well. For in God's redemption of Israel from physical slavery in Egypt, Christians have always seen the precursor of Christ's redemption of the whole world from the spiritual slavery of sin.
For the Israelites, Mount Horeb (the name used here and in 1 Kings, when Elijah arrived there after fleeing from wicked Ahab and Jezebel) would be better known by another name: Mount Sinai. In his exile from Pharaoh’s court and his all-but-hidden life as a shepherd, Moses undoubtedly knew the forbidding territory that surrounded this mountain. God, of course, needs no physical home, so Moses may well have even visited the mountain without anything special happening. In any event, now something special did happen: God Himself came to him in the form of fire – the most nonmaterial manifestation of power and therefore an apt form for the Creator to assume.
The term “angel of the Lord,” by the way, referred more often to God Himself assuming some form than it did to the visit of an actual angel (who by nature was a lower creature than God, though a higher creature than man). This was no emissary speaking to Moses. This was the same Almighty Being who had come to Abraham and Sarah in human form to announce Isaac's coming; He was the same being who had wrestled with Jacob and given him the name Israel. The knowledge of Him had not been lost among Jacob's descendants – but their word for Him, Elohim, was too like the other pseudo-gods worshiped by their neighbors. Moses wanted to know: Is there a more specific name by which we may worship You properly?
God answers with the Name that both reveals and conceals, the Name that became so revered by Israel that it would not be spoken aloud. Yahweh would not even be fully written out but would be denoted with its vowels omitted (YHWH). But its meaning is quite plain, its letters all capitalized: I AM. One day, Jesus would apply that Name to Himself, as well He deserved to – for He was I AM become flesh. It's a simple name and yet a profound one. Take some time to ponder it this Lent. God created everything, maintains everything, is everything to a world and the living beings and creatures that cannot exist without Him. He is “I AM” indeed. Let us repent and worship Him.
Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12
A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians.
I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink. For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless with most of them God was not pleased; for they were overthrown in the wilderness.
Now these things are warnings for us, not to desire evil as they did. Do not grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Meditation: In a sense, Paul picks up the story where the first reading left off. As a proud Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, a “Pharisee of Pharisees,” he knew well what happened to the Israelites as God led them out of Egypt to Mount Sinai, to the border of Canaan and then into nearly 40 years of wandering as punishment for their lack of faith.
Paul's ancestors had had so many manifestations of God's presence and care for them – in the cloud by day and pillar of fire by night on the march; in their rescue from the Egyptians at the sea; in the manna and the quail and the water produced by striking rocks; and above all in His terrifying but personal meeting with them at Sinai. And yet Israel still failed Him again and again! Their apostasy with the golden calf nearly earned them destruction; their cowardice when the 12 spies returned from Canaan cost all but two of them (Joshua and Caleb) their chance to inherit the land; the rebellion of some of them against Moses' authority caused three families (Korah, Dathan and Abiram) to be swallowed up by the earth at God's command.
It was entirely due to God's mercy – the same mercy He repeatedly shows us imperfect sinners – that the second generation of Israelites inherited the Promised Land. But if Israel could fall over and over despite such unmistakable signs of God's presence and providence, are we not likely to fall as well? So Paul warns us well: We may think we're in control. But take care. Stay close to God and cling to Him, for if we do not repent and walk with Him – as Jesus tells us in this weekend's Gospel – we risk dying short of the Promised Land of heaven.
Gospel: Luke 13:1-9
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke. Glory to You, O Lord.
There were some present at that very time who told Jesus of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish."
And he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, `Lo, these three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down; why should it use up the ground?' And he answered him, `Let it alone, sir, this year also, till I dig about it and put on manure. And if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ.
Meditation: One might say this reading was “ripped straight out of the headlines.” How easily can one imagine this conversation having taken place in 2013 had Jesus chosen to come now, with our 24-hour news cycle and modern communications technology? Not only do people tell Jesus about a “news story” that could be subtitled “Unrest in Jerusalem,” but Jesus even answers with a further comment on another that one might call “Tower falls; 18 dead.”
Now think about how easily so many people – even ourselves? – take today's news headlines and use them as cudgels in matters of politics, religion or both. A common one might go this way: “If there is a God, why does He let (fill in the number) people die (fill in the manner of death)?” In Jesus' day, it was common to assume that people who suffered tragedies “had it coming” – that they were being punished for some serious sin. Our Lord was having none of it. First, He sets the “reporters” straight: They weren't worse sinners than others – merely sinners. Second, He warns the listeners: Tend to your own eternal fate first!
And His Jewish skeptics, at least, had plenty to worry about. Israel was the immediate “fig tree” in Jesus' parable – a fig tree that had wanted for God's desired fruit for far too many centuries. Was Christ saying that His own people were in danger of being destroyed? On the contrary; though the physical and governmental structures of old Israel would indeed perish a mere 40 years later, the persistence of the Jewish people for more than two millennia testifies that Jesus is still tending to their fig tree even today. But, in truth, all humanity should see itself in the fig tree. Christ, our Vinedresser, continues to tend us, working until the end of the final season – the age of the Church – to ensure that His tree bears fruit. Whether we be Jew or Gentile by birth, we are equal in Christ's love for us. May we be found worthy of His harvest!
Close with individual prayer, followed by Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be