We can look at Moses in different ways. Like some historians, we might say “What does “real” history say about him?” Or, we could also see Moses strictly as a type of Christ, as the deacon Stephen does in the Acts of the Apostles before he’s killed. Or, we could see Moses as an example of how God calls all of us in life. That’s what the great 4th century Cappadocian mystic, Gregory of Nyssa, does in his classic work “The Life of Moses.”
We all want to see God. That’s what Moses wants during his 120 years of life. In Gregory’s view, Moses is not just an extraordinary Jewish leader to be judged by his accomplishments. More than that, he shows us what it means to be called to see the face of God.
Today’s reading (Exodus 2,1-15) is an account of Moses’ first 40 years. They’re dangerous years.. To save him from being eaten by animals, his Jewish mother puts him in the river in a little boat ( the word for boat in Exodus is the same word used in Genesis for Noah’s ark) So Moses– and all of us too– are placed in the river of life, with a mission from God and the promised protection of his covenant.
Gregory of Nyssa sees Moses’ adoption by Pharoah’s daughter as another lesson about life. As he makes his way to God, Moses is given human gifts–the wealth of Egypt– and divine gifts. We’re also given human and divine gifts too, and we have to use them too.
Moses’ first forty years end with the killing of the Egyptian and his subsequent flight to the desert of Midian. Choosing to stand with his own people Moses chooses to stand with God. In life we’re also constantly called to make that choice. If we wish to see the face of God, we must choose it.
Moses’ next forty years are spent in solitude in the mountains of Midian where he lives a virtuous life, finally meeting God in the burning bush. Then, at eighty years, he’s sent on to the next stage of his life: leading his people through the desert to the promised land.
Eighty years old is hardly a good time to begin something as big as that, is it? But Gregory sees Moses’ life as an inward journey, a constant journey, a journey that has nothing to do with age. Moses never thinks he’s old:
“…the great Moses, becoming ever greater, never stopped his ascent, never set a limit to his upward course. Once setting his foot on the ladder that God set up (as Jacob says) he continually climbed to the step above and never ceased to rise higher, because there was always a step higher than the one he attained…though lifted up through such lofty experiences, he’s still unsatisfied in his desire for more. He still thirsts for what seems beyond his capacity… beseeching God to appear to him, not according to his capacity, but according to God’s true being.
“Such an experience seems to me to belong to the soul who loves the beautiful. Hope always draws the soul from the beauty that’s seen to what ‘s beyond; it always kindles the desire for what’s hidden from what’s now known. Boldly requesting to go up the mountain of desires the soul asks to enjoy Beauty, not in mirrors, or reflections, but face to face. “ (Gregory of Nyssa)
“Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.” T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets