It’s uncommon for me to open the many mass mailings that come addressed to the parish from other religious organizations, but I did so with one unusual piece of mail this week. I was expecting more of the typical solicitation or doomsday forecasting. Much to my surprise, the author of the letter did not ask for anything; nor did he write about the eternal torments facing those who don’t “get saved.” Rather, the letter was from a former minister who had chosen to leave the ministry. He explained that he had come to the realization that he was not living a life in concord with the teaching of the Scriptures and, as an act of personal integrity, had decided to leave his position in church work.
The letter contained no hint of bitterness or self-recrimination. It was addressed to other clergy, but there was no tone of judgmentalism in it. The author of the letter seemed to be both grateful and relieved that he had made an appropriate decision; he seemed to want to accomplish no more than to encourage other clergy to be faithful to the Scriptures.
I’m still not entirely certain how to react to the fellow’s letter, but it brings up a salient point about interpreting the Scriptures. According to the author, it was his familiarity with the Scriptures that first enticed him into ministry and a growing familiarity with the Scriptures that convinced him to leave ministry. It seems strange, doesn’t it, that the same Scriptures could provide both encouragement and discouragement? If nothing else, this apparent contradiction should make us very careful about trying to interpret the message of the Scriptures. Today’s first reading is an example of a Scriptural text that can be understood in numerous, divergent ways.
There is a certain dramatic flair about the event recounted in the reading from Exodus. The Israelites had only recently escaped Egypt, and were just beginning to make their way to the Land of Promise. In order to continue their journey they had to fight their way past the Amalekite people. The text says, “As long as Moses kept his hands raised up, Israel had the better of the fight, but when he let his hands rest, Amalek had the better of the fight.” (Exodus 17:11) Relying on help from Aaron and Hur, Moses kept his hands raised long enough for the Israelites to win the day. (Exodus 17:12-13)
This story begs for interpretation, but how is one to interpret it accurately and faithfully? To many people this passage of Scripture probably sounds like the commonly accepted caricature of the God of the Old Testament as bloodthirsty, belligerent and instigating violence; this angry Old Testament God was never so pleased as by the conflict of war or the sufferings of the ungodly. The major flaw in this interpretation is that God figures much less prominently in the story than Moses; perhaps, we should look for another meaning.
The central figures of this story are Moses and the walking staff he carried during the People’s sojourn in the desert. Perhaps the story is about the power contained in “the staff of God.” (Exodus 17:9) Crystal gazers, dream catcher watchers, nature lovers and Earth-mother devotees might see in this story an affirmation of their belief in the mystical powers hidden in natural objects. Unfortunately, this interpretation degenerates quickly into superstition, an act prohibited by Hebrew (and Christian), religion.
Many Scripture scholars have proposed a believable and faithful interpretation of this event by saying that the sight of Moses holding aloft his walking staff offered such great encouragement to the Israelite soldiers that they fought fearlessly because of the moral witness of their leader. This interpretation is very plausible, but not entirely satisfying; personally, I find it a little too simplistic.
Moses’ hands were raised as if he was saying a prayer of blessing over the Israelite soldiers. The soldiers, for their part, were successful against their opponents while being blessed and unsuccessful when the blessing was withdrawn. Given the very dramatic tone of the story, and the iconic image presented of Moses, Aaron and Hur, this story reads more like liturgy than historical narrative. I’d like to suggest that the battle depicted in this passage of Exodus was heavily edited in order to give it a liturgical, ritual character.
It shouldn’t seem strange to us at all that a military battle was used as the setting in which to extol the virtues of liturgical prayer. Most of us face a battle of some sort in order to be here every Sunday morning. It’s easy enough to appreciate the battle that parents of young children face in order to get the kids fed, dressed and organized for Mass attendance, but they are not the only ones who struggle. For those facing the physical limitations of age or ill health, weekly Mass attendance is another form of battle.
You might think that it’s easy for a priest to be at Mass on time, but I assure you it’s not. I don’t have to contend with the distractions of getting family members ready for Mass, but I do have to contend with the distraction of your distractions. Those of you who wait until the last possible moment to ask for Confession before Mass become an occasion of sin for me, making me worry that Mass won’t start on time. Those of you who are eager to share your joys or worries are vying for memory space in my brain – space already fully occupied by my homily for the weekend. Then, of course, there are the distractions that occur in church during Mass. Liturgy can be a real battle, but perhaps, it ought to be so.
There is real struggle required of anyone who intends to remain faithful to God. Real effort is required to pray every day, to keep the commandments, to forgive our enemies, to love our neighbor and to worship together as a community. We should expect to be successful at times and, at other times, to be less than successful. This isn’t such a bad thing, really. The occasional unsuccessful effort to do what we know we should do serves as a good reminder that we cannot do God’s will without God’s help. I would add one additional thought here: we cannot be assured of God’s help until and unless we ask God for help. Hence, we return to liturgy.
The daily effort required to be faithful to God and neighbor can only be successful when done with God’s daily help. Like the Israelites of old, we remain faithful to the degree that we remain united as a worshiping community. It might require a great deal of effort on your part to be here on time, to leave behind your distractions, to remain engaged in communal prayer for the entire length of Mass and to focus on God rather than self. It’s well worth the effort because the effort itself is the substance of faithfulness.
If you feel a little weary from the battle, or a little reluctant to take up the struggle again, take heart. Sunday Liturgy is a communal request for help from God, and it predisposes us to receive Divine help when it comes. Liturgical prayer makes us a faith community, challenges us to grow in faith and mediates increased faith to us. Sunday liturgy provides an encounter with the Risen Savior and the comfort of a shared experience. Those are blessings worth the effort and struggle.