The story of Moses before the burning bush (Exodus 3:1ff) was read in many churches this past Sunday. I have always wondered why in the story Moses is commanded to not go any nearer but to “take off your shoes for the place you are standing is holy ground” (Ex 3: 5). It struck me this past Sunday that the reason might as well be that Moses would feel the burning bush under his exposed feet. “Standing in the Fire” is the image that came to mind. In some African communities two estranged individuals (or elders representing two communities) step over warm ashes to shake hands as a gesture of reconciliation. The warm ashes represent the pain of their past estrangement, which they are meant to feel.
As Moses stands (sandals removed) in the fire of the burning bush God tells him: “I have heard the cry of my people”. It is as if God is inviting Moses to feel the same pain, to hear the same cry that God has heard. The pain of God’s people now become Moses’ pain. But it is also then that God reveals herself more intimately to Moses – not simply as the God of ‘your forefathers’, but as the “I am”. And it is here again in the fire that Moses receives his call – which is to say God reveals God’s mission which involves Moses’ life (I mean to send you down to Egypt…). All these are gifts, so to say, that Moses receives as he stands in the fire, feeling the heat of the burning bush. This is what makes the burning bush ‘holy ground’.
I think about Lent as the time more than any other when I am invited – nay, commanded to ‘remove your sandals’ and learn to stand on the holy ground of pain so as to receive the strange gifts of compassion (feeling other people’s cries); of God’s intimacy (“I am”) and glimpse, even if in fragmented and piecemeal ways, the meaning and purpose of my life. Even then, the fact that pain and suffering can be such a holy ground remains a mystery, even though an integral part of God’s journey with us, which Angelina Atyam describes as “painfully beautiful”.