“I AM Who I AM” Exodus 3:14
With the beginning of the new church year on December 1, 2013, the community of the Spirit of St. Stephen begins its 19th consecutive year of praying for nonviolence and working for peace. We have been praying to be a people of reconciliation, forgiveness, prophetic voices, hunger and justice. This year we pray widely, broadly as we seek the many names and faces of the Holy One who named him/herself: I AM Who I AM.
The book of Exodus is the second book of the Bible. It begins with the Israelites being taken into the oppression of slavery at the command of the Pharaoh of the Egyptian people. From exile and the bitterness of slavery God called Moses to lead the people out of Egypt. As the story is told, Moses was no saint, and at the time of his call he was a simple shepherd crossing the desert toward the mountain of Horeb. We know that there was a bush that was on fire but was not consumed—a burning bush. Moses went closer to examine this sight and God began a conversation with Moses. Back and forth they went—“Here I am” “Remove the sandals from your feet for this is holy ground.” “Come now! I will send you to Pharaoh to lead my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of Egypt?” “I will be with you…” “But when I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ if they ask me, ‘What is God’s name?’ what am I to tell them?” “I am who I am. This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I AM sent me to you.”
Many scholars believe that I AM is the source of the word Yahweh, the proper personal name of the God of Israel. Other translations include ‘the Absolute and Necessary Being’, ‘The Source of All Created Beings, ’ and I Am Who Was and Is and Will Be.” Out of reverence for this name, the term Adonai, “my Lord” was used as a substitute while some believe the word Jehovah is a mistranslation from the Hebrew. As you can tell, the human urge/desire/necessity to name God, contain God, and describe God runs deep and passionately.
And here we are, thousands of years later perhaps slightly more knowledgeable about the science of things and perhaps less knowledgeable about the mystery of things, still searching for the Divine, still praying with the Psalmist, “O God, this is the people that longs to see your face”, still wondering what to call God when we are summoned first toward and then out from the burning bush.
When the meeting of 15+ representatives from the community gathered to agree on a prayer focus for this new year of prayer, there was excellent, challenging conversation. For over an hour we were back and forth, trying on one path and abandoning it in favor of another. There were many paths explored but no decision. After some time to simmer, it seemed that all of the wonderful ideas—The Many Faces of God, Under the Tents of the Ancestors, The Masks of God, The Mystery of the Holy One,” God Speaks in Many Tongues, God, Beyond All Names, to name a few—could be held under the broad tent of “I AM Who I AM.”
So many wonderful questions came with the conversation: Where do I see God? Where do you see the face of God? Who is the face of God for you? For whom are you the face of God? What do you call God when you pray? How have your names of God changed over the years? What is your experience of God? How have you come to understand God? How many faces does God have? How many names?
We will search in our own tradition as well as others who call upon the Divine Mystery for answers to these questions and more questions to answer. Along the way we hope to learn more about the Holy One through the prayers and traditions of our Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi, Wiccan, Christian and Catholic sisters and brothers.
Matthew is our primary Gospel writer in this A cycle of the new liturgical year. This first gospel in the collection of sacred texts is ascribed to Matthew the tax collector who became an apostle. While written about 20 years later than Mark’s collection, Matthew includes great blocks of Jesus’s spoken teaching. This might be one reason it came to be known as the ‘teaching gospel.’ What better place to begin to discover I AM than with a teacher!
Between the first two chapters describing the birth of Jesus and the last two chapters telling of the death of Jesus, Matthew’s gospel is organized into five books each containing one of Jesus’ 5 great teaching discourses. It is from Mathew’s Jesus that we first hear that the Law of tradition is not to be abolished but intensified, written on our very hearts and lived with the indiscriminate love of God. All things are new in this Law of Love. Matthew’s Jesus also pays great attention to the community of Jesus’ followers. Hopefully we will be able to find ourselves in that community as we experience Matthew’s sweetness, severity, cleverness and challenge throughout the liturgical year.
[Scripture fun fact: ONLY Matthew uses the word church (ekklesia) in his writing.]
In the usual pattern of Advent readings, the First Sunday begins near the end of the chapter, carrying on the images and readings of the end time. Then we go back closer to the beginning and middle for two stories of John the Baptist on the Second and Third Sundays, and finally back to the very beginning for news of the Holy Infant to be born among us: This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about…. It is from this Fourth Sunday that we hear the fundamental promise of Advent, “They shall name him Emmanuel, God-with-us.” Add in the beautiful images from Isaiah the prophet and already there are dozens of names and faces to begin describing the great I AM.
We will begin simply, in this simple season, by becoming mindful of our need, our community’s need, our world’s need as we are invited into prayer. Because ‘This is My Body, this is My Blood’ are two of our powerful images of God, we return always to the table of the Eucharistic feast and the words that fill us with hope every day of the year: Do this in memory of me.
Christmas, Easter and Pentecost are the trinity of feasts that expand our names, images and experiences of God and pin particular the gift of Jesus Christ living always, with us, within us and among us. Advent calls us to remember again and to prepare for the miracle of the incarnate one, The Word made Flesh, Emmanuel, God-with-us. Advent’s Jesus, this year brought to life in the gospel of Matthew, calls us to stay awake, to prepare and be prepared, to listen for prophets, and to live the unwavering faith of Joseph. And so we begin anew in our unbroken circle of prayer, watching, waiting, hoping.
We begin simply in this season of Advent as our ancestors in faith have done for centuries. We begin by creating some quiet space to call out our need in ancient melody. We begin by gathering ourselves in the mystery and the name of Emmanuel, God-with-Us. We begin by lighting the candles of promise and possibility that have shone throughout the ages and will not dim for us now. We begin by opening our hearts to a new season of God’s life-giving and heart-expanding revelation through the prayerful consideration of I AM Who I AM. We begin.
As a Christian people, when we prepare to begin our new church year we are at our most radical and counter-cultural. Perhaps we are even at our gospel best in this short, dark, lovely season. We begin this prayer during the season of Promise and Hope, the season of waiting, wonder and awe, the season of coming fulfillment. We renew ourselves to the difficult prayer and action of nonviolence with a conscious consideration that is at once basic and prophetic. We seek the place of true peace in our own heart to root us in this new growth. Mother Earth encourages us to slow down, contemplate, breathe deeply of the unique air bearing snowflakes, to wait. Residents of the Northern hemisphere we are reminded to open our hearts like the leafless branches around us and love the life deep within that we cannot see. The season of Advent calls us to many of the same postures. Our culture calls us to frantic busyness, multiplication of lights to keep the darkness at bay, over-consuming, over-indulging, over-scheduling, Christmas muzak
filling the silence and gifts without heart or soul; often we answer the call. Perhaps our prayer focus this year will call us more into being than doing. Perhaps by its end we will be able to say through God and with God, “I Am.”