One of the first things we were told to do as novices was to recognize the Presence of God. In the novitiate each day one novice was instructed to call out periodically, “The Presence of God,” and we were to stop anything we were doing and stand for a moment of silence, to remember God’s presence.
The Book of Exodus says the Jews did something similar when they journeyed through the desert. They set up a tent, a meeting tent they called it, to recognize the presence of God.
“Whenever Moses went out to the tent, the people would all rise and stand at the entrance of their own tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent.
As Moses entered the tent, the column of cloud would come down and stand at its entrance while the LORD spoke with Moses.
On seeing the column of cloud stand at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise and worship at the entrance of their own tents. The LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another.”
The tent, the cloud, the pillar of fire are signs of God’s dynamic presence. His presence is not fixed; he leads this group to another place. The Exodus is not just a story about the human journey of a group of foreigners on their way from Egypt to Palestine. God leads them on.
God leads them to a place they don’t know. God’s not a wall surrounding them and making them safe and settled; God’s on the move, and God makes them move on.
Someone said to me recently, “We’re reading too many of those long Old Testament stories at Mass.” In his book “The Mystery of the Temple” the theologian Yves Congar, OP, says we need those “long” Old Testament stories like those from Exodus to remind us of the dynamic presence of a God who lives in tents and is a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day.
God is our guide, the only map we have, and he moves each of us and all of history to a new stage. “We are always tempted to confine ourselves to what we see and touch, to be satisfied with this and to think that a preliminary achievement fulfills God’s promise, ” Congar writes.
Abraham thought God’s promise was fulfilled in Ismael, Joshua thought it was the conquest of Canaan. Solomon thought it was in his immediate descendants…”but these promises were capable of more complete fulfillment which would only materialize after long periods of waiting and urgently needed purification. Only the prophets–and this, in fact, is their task–draw attention to the process of development from seminal promises and to the progress of the latter towards their accomplishment through successive stages of fulfillment continuously transcending one another.” (p 31-32)
We may think it’s the end, but it’s only a beginning.
Finally, in the desert, a place of homelessness and unease, God speaks most familiarly with Moses, the Book of Exodus says: “The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another.” Is that true for us too? Does God choose to speak most familiarly with us when we’re in the desert, not sure where life is heading?