What’s in a Name?” – Fr. Bob’s Homily for Sunday, March 20, 2022

Prince Charles, our future King, would often tell his sons, Princes William and Harry: “Don’t tell people who you are, unless they forget”. It was a cryptic way of telling them: ”Be polite with those you meet, don’t lord it over them, unless they cross over the line from politeness to over-familiarity, then you must put them in their place.” I imagine that this represents Charles’ hard-earned experience over the years at the hands of those strangers who have mistaken his casualness in relationship as an invitation to call him “Charlie” and treat him as a “buddy”.

This tension between friendship and over-familiarity in relationship to God is explored thoroughly in our readings today. It was Israel’s abiding sin that, because God had singled them out to have a special relationship with Him and called them his “chosen people” to imagine that they could treat him as their good old “buddy”, who wouldn’t take offence if they misbehaved from time to time and would always understand and forgive if they took advantage of him occasionally. 

Now God clearly, as we see from his word, does NOT want to have his people terrified of him all the time and hanging back from coming close to He who has first come close to them. This is the God, after all, who, in the words of our responsorial psalm today, “made known his ways to Moses .and to the people of Israel…who forgives, heals, redeems and is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love”.  This is the God, whom St James, in his letter, urges us to “Draw close to God, and he will draw close to you” (James 4:8). Yet, at the beginning of his relationship with Moses, in our first reading, God sets some clear boundaries, mixing invitation with warning. God chooses to reveal himself to Moses, and commission him to lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt. His manifestation in the burning bush invites Moses to “come and see”. Yet at the same time, he warns Moses “to come no closer, and to take off his sandals, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground”. Later on, when Moses asks God to reveal his name, God is curiously elusive. The name he gives, translated as Yahweh, means “I AM” or “I AM WHO I AM” or “I WILL BE AS I WILL BE”. It is a curiously indistinctive name, almost a no-name (she who shall be nameless, or her indoors). We might ask why God is behaving so coy, so shy. Until we realize that, in the world of the Ancient Near East, to ask for someone’s name was a way of trying to get control over them, by laying claim to an equality of relationship that doesn’t exist. In the Old Testament, on occasion, angels in their interaction with humans, are sometimes asked what their name is, and they always refuse to give it (cf Judges 13: 17ff; Genesis 32:29). During Jesus’ ministry on earth, demons whom he drove out from humans, tried to speak his name, in an attempt to stop him, but he always silenced them. They were not going to be able to manipulate or control him. (cf Mark 1: 23, 34). To use a rather bad analogy, it would be like someone on a first date, asking the other if they had a “pet name” that they could call them by – somewhat inappropriate and bold. 

So, Moses, who has just encountered Yahweh for the first time, tries to control him, as he had learned to control the gods of Egypt, where he had been brought up, by finding out and using the god’s name. And Moses is being told by Yahweh, “Listen, Moses, I am not like any of these Egyptian gods, or like any other gods on earth. All you need to know for now is that I will be there when you need me. You don’t need to concern yourself with when, where, how or why. I will be there for you. “It is the first thing God wants us to know also, at the beginning of our relationship with him, that he is for us, he is with us. Later on, as we grow in our relationship with him, we will learn more about this God of ours, and we will find out, as James says, that as we draw close to him, he will draw close to us. Moses , himself, will grow so close to God that he will be allowed to meet with him and talk to him “face to face” as to a friend (Exodus 33:11) – a privilege extended to other “special ones” in the Old Testament – Abraham, David, Elijah. But a privilege completely overshadowed by Jesus’ invitation to each one of us, who are his disciples , to call God “Abba” , a familiar way of describing God as “Father” , “Dad” , “Daddy” . 

In our second reading, the Corinthians community are warned by Paul not to take for granted the fact that they are baptized and receive communion. It does not mean that they can behave in all kinds of sinful ways, and God, rather like a doting grandfather, will look upon them indulgently, and not mind. Paul uses the example of the Israelites, travelling through the desert on the way to the Promised Land, who also went through a form of “baptism” and received spiritual food and drink, but who disobeyed and rebelled against Yahweh, and were struck down for their insolence. We cannot, as Christians, assume that that just because we were baptized as babies, went to Catholic schools, received the sacraments of first communion and confirmation, and occasionally turn up for church from time to time, that this enables us to dismiss God from our thoughts the moment we are out of church, and go through our lives as, practically, “baptized pagans”. Do we pray, do we read Scripture, and other spiritual reading, do we perform good works , what kind of moral example are we giving to those around us on a regular basis ? 

Jesus gives us a parable in our gospel, about a tree which has not borne fruit despite constant care on the part of the gardener. It is a metaphor for those, who claim to be Christians, who are not bearing fruit that glorifies God and makes the Christian faith attractive to those earnestly seeking to know and draw close to God. We have to ask ourselves, “When people look at me, and observe my behavior and my words, what kind of image do they get of the Jesus I claim to be a disciple of – good or bad?” Pope Francis says that we must seek to make our Catholic Christian faith “attractive” to others, as a way of drawing them to know and love the God who is reaching out to them, through us, to draw them to himself. How are we doing with that, brothers and sisters? 

These great questions of life are what Lent is all about . We go out into the desert of Lent, put aside various distractions so we can use the time to draw closer in friendship and love to God. He wants to reveal himself more and more to us, but the various distractions and activities of our everyday world oftentimes keep us from spending time with our Lord and knowing his heart more and more. So Lent is described as a spiritual “desert” because it is in the desert historically, that Israel has had a privileged time of encounter with their God. Jt is there, that God speaks to us and invites us to live the tension between knowing him in a personal, intimate way, on the one hand, and not presuming on that relationship in a way that demonstrates complacency and a certain disdain, on the other. The closer we get to God, the more time we spend in his presence,  praying and listening, and studying his word, the Bible, the more we will grow in knowledge and understanding of him, and the less likely we will tend to either run scared of him, or take him for granted. As we leave the oasis time in the desert, which is what this Eucharist is, and prepare to return to our Lenten journey, let us leave with the words of our responsorial psalm ringing in our ears: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him.”