Presence and Name
Thou art near, O Lord: and all thy ways are truth. (Psalm 118:151)
We have seen in Part 1 some of the divine “qualities” that the Burning Bush revealed: Holy Fire, “uncreated” Light, “limitless” Love. By appearing in this way, the transcendent God clearly showed His desire to come close to His people, to manifest His Divine Presence. And, because Moses dared to ask, the Lord revealed to him His all-holy Name (Exodus 3:13-16), which Moses would say to his people to explain Who had sent him. When He revealed His Name, the Lord reminded Moses that He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Thus, He established His continuing presence through Time. God created Time and his creatures live in time, therefore, even his Name is bound up with the promise of his presence extending in Time. “He is present at all times, for He dominates time, He who is the First and the Last” (“Presence of God,” in Dict. of Biblical Theology, p. 455).
But again we come upon the question: What kind of “appearing” is this? God, who is Pure Spirit, made His presence known and felt to His creature, seen and heard by him. As in Part 1, the precise phrasing of the Dictionary of Biblical Theology comes to our aid:
“The presence of God, in order to be real, is not material, however. If this presence manifests through sensible signs, it is still the presence of a spiritual being whose love envelops His creature and vivifies it, whose love wishes to communicate itself to man and make of him a luminous witness of His presence.” (p. 455; emphasis added)
When we pray, to take a different example, we may feel God’s presence because he allows these sensible signs in us as our consolation, to strengthen the loving bond between us. As this relationship of prayer grows and deepens, this sensible consolation may be withdrawn by the Divine partner, so that our love can be strengthened further, in faith and trust, and become more selfless. We know He is there, even without the support of sensing his Presence.
But for Moses, the astonishing material manifestation of the paradoxical Burning Bush was chosen by God to confer this great mission on His prophet. It was a miracle operating in the great Providence of God. This brings us to our next topic, a unique sort of Divine presence.
Gregory of Nyssa (c. 332-395), one of the important Cappadocian fathers of the early Church, wrote a Life of Moses. Among many other fascinating observations, he discussed the Burning Bush as a type of Incarnation. Gregory pointed out both the ineffability of God and the physicality, or material nature, of the flaming Bush chosen to convey this event of his real Presence on Mount Horeb. He saw this Incarnation in the Burning Bush as a figure of the Incarnation of Christ, a Divine foreshadowing of the Word become flesh. Let me quote Gregory’s own words:
“It is upon us who continue in this quiet and peaceful course of life that the truth will shine, illuminating the eyes of our soul with its own rays. This truth, which was then manifested by the ineffable and mysterious illumination which came to Moses, is God. And if the flame by which the soul of the prophet was illuminated was kindled from a thorny bush, even this fact will not be useless for our inquiry. For if truth is God and truth is light–the Gospel testifies by these sublime and divine names to the God who made himself visible to us in the flesh*–such guidance of virtue leads us to know that light which has reached down even to human nature. Lest one think that the radiance did not come from the material substance, this light did not shine from some luminary among the stars but came from an earthly bush and surpassed the heavenly luminaries in brilliance.” (The Life of Moses, Book II, 19, 20, p. 59)
By the Burning Bush, the Lord manifested His Divine Presence and gave proof of His continuing desire to be palpably close to His Chosen People. But how can we envision or understand this “appearing” of the Lord to Moses? Holy Scripture itself shows the way to an answer, and iconography, especially in the Eastern churches, has followed its lead. When He reveals his Name, the Lord reminds Moses that he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For each of these patriarchs, the “Angel of the Lord” was the means by which the invisible God would “appear” and interact with his beloved human creatures. This Angel was unique–it was not one of the created angels, the spiritual beings such as the archangels Michael, Raphael, or Gabriel, but rather the unique angelic manifestation of the “uncreated energies” of God Himself. Vladislav Andrejev proposes this distinction in his fascinating book The Angel of the Countenance of God: Theology and the Iconology of Theophanies (pp. x, 59). As the Psalmist says,
“O Lord my God, thou art exceedingly great. Thou hast put on praise and beauty: And art clothed with light as with a garment” (Psalm 103 :1-2; DR).
Icons use symbolic images to convey ineffable truths of faith such as these, the miraculous events revealed by Scripture and meditated upon in Sacred Tradition. The Angel of the Lord, when depicted, is portrayed in many different ways depending on the scene and its interior meaning. To Abraham, the Lord appeared in a most extraordinary visit of three angelic dinner guests at the Oaks of Mamre:
Adonai appeared to Avraham by the oaks of Mamre as he sat at the entrance to the tent during the heat of the day. He raised his eyes and looked, and there in front of him stood three men. On seeing them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, prostrated himself on the ground, and said, “My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, please don’t leave your servant. Please let me send for some water, so that you can wash your feet; then rest under the tree, and I will bring a piece of bread. Now that you have come to your servant, refresh yourselves before going on.” “Very well,” they replied, “do what you have said.” (Genesis 18:1-5; Complete Jewish Bible trans.).
It says distinctly that the Lord, Adonai, appeared to Abraham, but when he raised his eyes and looked he saw three men (to whom he proceeded to serve a meal, with the help of his wife Sarah). Thus, the famous icon of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev depicts just this incident of the Lord’s appearing as three angelic travelers, who eat a meal and have a mysterious dialogue with Abraham, informing him that he and Sarah will have a son in a year’s time. Much later, at the decisive moment for both Abraham and his son Isaac, the Angel of the Lord called out to Abraham and stayed his hand to prevent him from completing the act of sacrifice of his beloved son, as soon as the obedient offering had been made in his heart (Genesis 22: 11-12). Icons of Abraham and Isaac at this moment may show the Lord as a hand reaching down from heaven, or as a fully depicted Angel intervening with Abraham to stop his imminent action. The icons are not meant to usurp the text but rather to reveal its significance, its impact on the soul of Abraham and thereby convey a spiritual truth to the contemplating viewer. Again much later, when Isaac was old, his son Jacob would wrestle with the Angel of the Lord for a blessing, leaving Jacob forever marked in his hip and changed, bearing a new name, Israel (see Genesis 32:22-32; Hosea 12:3-5).
In his book, Andrejev considers the “Angel of the Lord” spoken of at crucial moments in Genesis and Exodus as incarnating only the “uncreated energies” of God, acquainting His People with his Presence among them, and thereby preparing them for the fullness of the Lord’s Incarnation later, in the Messiah–the Christ–who is the God-Man, the eternal Word (Logos)-made-flesh. No one can see the full glory of God and live–that is, the full Beatific Vision is reserved for Heaven. Yet when the Lord chose to manifest his Angel to His People, He not only directed and led them according to His Will, but the Lord also intensified their longing for Himself.
Blessed Virgin Mary as the “Unburnt Bush”
The Prophet Isaiah told King Ahaz that he would receive a prophetic sign: Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel (Isaiah 7:14). The Hebrew עִמָּנוּאֵל, ‘Immanu’el, means “God with us,” and this verse is quoted in the first chapter of the New Testament with its meaning:
Now all this was done that it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the prophet, saying: Behold a virgin shall be with child, and bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. (Matthew 1:22-23)
Both the Incarnation of the Son of God (at the Annunciation) and his Birth from the womb of a Virgin Mother were such great mysteries that the early Christians searched the prophecies and signs of the Messiah’s coming in the Law and the Prophets to deepen their understanding. The New Testament and the writings of the Greek and Latin Fathers of the Church are full of their findings. In Catholic teaching, Mary is ever-Virgin: before, during, and after Jesus’ birth, and for the remainder of her earthly life.**
First, the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 was understood as one complete thought, foretelling the miraculous birth of Jesus: Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son. Who will bear a son? This must refer back to the virgin, and this Child, who was the Messiah, was as miraculous in his birth as in his conception, not altering the virginity of his chosen Holy Mother.
“St. Ambrose expressed this magnificently when he wrote: ‘This is the Virgin who conceived in her womb, the Virgin who bore a son. For thus it is written: Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son (Is. 7:14). Not only is it said that the virgin would conceive, but that the virgin would bear a child.'” (See S. Manelli, All Generations Shall Call Me Blessed, p. 29, for more on this quote from Ambrose.)
The fact that the Gospel writer Matthew cites this prophecy in his first chapter, as he introduces Mary, Joseph, and the soon-to-be-born Jesus, confirms that he identifies Mary and Jesus with the Virgin and Child of Isaiah’s prophecy. The holy Fathers of the early Christian Church agreed (see Manelli, p. 30).
Another passage that was adduced to support Mary’s perpetual virginity comes from Ezekiel’s astonishing vision of the Temple, specifically his vision of the Gate of the outer sanctuary:
And he brought me back to the way of the gate of the outward sanctuary, which looked towards the east: and it was shut. And the Lord said to me: This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it: because the Lord the God of Israel hath entered in by it, and it shall be shut. (Ezekiel 44:1-2)
Seeing Mary as the Gate of Heaven, the Church Fathers interpreted this passage as referring symbolically to Mary’s virginity before and after giving birth. After greeting Mary as “full of grace,” the angel declared: Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus. (Luke 1:31). Mary asked how this could come about, because I know not man? The angel answered, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee (Luke 1:34,35). Thus, in line with Ezekiel’s vision, the Holy Ghost enters the womb of the Virgin Mother by overshadowing her and this Gate is shut, and not to be opened. As the Song of Songs poetically puts it, my spouse is a garden enclosed, a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up (4:12). And St. Ambrose explains the prophetic symbolism:
“She is closed because she is a virgin; she is a gate, because Christ has entered through her…. This gate faces east, because she has given birth to him who rises, the sun of justice.” “Mary is the good gate that was closed and was not opened. Christ passed through it but did not open it.” (citations in Manelli, p. 73)
Why is this important? Mary occupies a position absolutely unique between heaven and earth. She is chosen and prepared to be the sinless Mother of the Saviour, who will reconcile human beings to God, from whom they estranged themselves by sin. Being uniquely the Mother of the Son of God, Mary is set apart, that is, consecrated, in a wholly extraordinary manner as the sinless and ever-Virgin Mother. Her womb is preserved free from all but the supernatural action of the Holy Trinity: the Father who chooses her from all eternity, the Holy Spirit who sanctifies and espouses her, and the Son who is incarnate of the Holy Spirit from her substance while retaining his Divine Nature. The Son of God will emerge from this Holy of Holies in which he has gestated without opening this Gate of Heaven. Indeed, no word shall be impossible with God (Luke 1:37).
St. Gregory of Nyssa, again in his Life of Moses, was the first to have written that the Burning Bush of Exodus prefigured Mary’s Virginity, unaltered by the Christ Child’s miraculous birth, in a particularly apt way. Continuing his discussion of the Light of the Burning Bush as a special Incarnation, Gregory wrote: “From this we learn also the mystery of the Virgin: The light of divinity which through birth shone from her into human life did not consume the burning bush, even as the flower of her virginity was not withered by giving birth” (The Life of Moses, 21, p. 59). As the Bush was not consumed even by a blazing Holy Fire, Mary’s Virginity was not consumed by the birth of the Son of God, but left intact. Although a variety of icons portray Moses’ encounter with God in the Burning Bush, the icon called “The Unburnt Bush” takes up this Marian theme in a strikingly vivid way.
The Light of the Unconsumed Bush, which is the incarnate image of the ineffable God, now becomes the image of the Incarnate Son who is the Light of the World, the infant Jesus in the arms of His Ever-Virgin Mother. At the bottom of this icon, Moses is still tending his flock, not yet aware of the Theophany awaiting him. Here we are not in the realm of the literal. Icons are formally called “writings” rather than pictures because they offer a summary representation of spiritual teachings in a symbolic form, in order to stimulate contemplation and devotion. It is not being suggested that Moses saw Mary and the infant Christ. He saw what Holy Scripture says he saw–the thorn bush burning but not consumed–and he heard the voice of the Lord. However, the icon creates a link between this theophany and another, the Nativity of the Lord, in which the newborn Infant Jesus appears bathed in his own Light, while Mary and Joseph and the Shepherds watch at his crib with loving adoration. These two images propose to the viewer the contemplation of the properties they share.
The Preface of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1962 Missale Romanum), which is said in all her festive and votive Masses, enshrines these divine mysteries of the virginal conception and birth of Jesus. It begins by giving thanks “to Thee, holy Lord, Father almighty, eternal God” and says, in part, “that we should praise and bless and proclaim Thee” in the Annunciation (or whichever feast is being celebrated) “of the blessed Mary ever Virgin: who conceived Thine only-begotten Son by the overshadowing of the Holy Ghost, and the glory of her virginity still abiding, gave forth to the world the eternal Light, Jesus Christ our Lord:…” This miraculous birth brings us back to the icon of the Unburnt Bush. The Light of the World dawned (John 1:1-14) without consuming the virginity of the one who gave birth. Truly, the sign given to king Achaz had been fulfilled: “a virgin will conceive, and bear a son” (Isaiah 7:14). As St. Ambrose noted long ago, both the “conceiving” and “bearing” of the son are predicated of the Virgin.
The two parts of this essay on the Burning Bush in Genesis have followed a line of contemplation that led us to the two Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Both of these loving Hearts are implicated in the Burning Bush in different ways. In Part 1, the Sacred Heart of Jesus burns with its divine fire of sacrificial love, eternally poured out to win souls. Fire and Light lead to the inexhaustible source of limitless Love. Here in Part 2, the Immaculate Heart of Mary perfectly reflects this fire of mercy and love in its perpetual purity. The pure Presence of God so vivid in the Burning Bush is miraculously contained in the womb of the Virgin Mother in order that the Word can be made flesh and dwell among us. May our continuing contemplation of Moses at the Burning Bush, in the company of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary, serve to set our own hearts ablaze with reverence and awe, and above all, with the holy Love that will never be consumed.
* The editor of this edition cites in a footnote two sayings of Jesus alluded to by Gregory :“I am the light of the world: he that followeth me, walketh not in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12); and “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). See The Life of Moses, Bk II, Note 27, p. 159.
** For theological discussion and Biblical support for Mary’s Perpetual Virginity, see, for example, Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Bk 3, Part 3, chap. 2.5, pp. 220-224; Rev. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, The Mother of the Saviour and our interior life, Part I, chap. 3, article 4, pp. 118-122; and Fr. Stefano M. Manelli, All Generations Shall Called Me Blessed: Biblical Mariology, “The Virgin Mother,” pp. 21-36, and “Marian Figures and Symbols,” especially pp. 71-79, on Mary as the Gate of Heaven in Ezekiel’s vision of the sanctuary (Ezekiel 44:1-2).
Dictionary of Biblical Theology (2nd ed.) by Xavier Léon-Dufour. Trans. by Geoffrey Chapman. Frederick, MD: The Word Among Us Press, 1988. (Original work published in French in 1962)
The Life of Moses by St. Gregory of Nyssa. Trans., Intro., and Notes by Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978.
The Angel of the Countenance of God: Theology and Iconology of Theophanies by Vladislav Andrejev. Brooklyn, NY: Angelico Press, 2021.
Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma by Ludwig Ott. Trans. by Patrick Lynch, and ed. by J. C. Bastible; rpt. ed. by Robert Fastiggi. Baronius Press, 2020. (Original work 1952)
The Mother of the Saviour and our interior life by Rev. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange. Trans. by Rev. Bernard J. Kelly. Catholic Way Publishing, 2013. (Original work 1948)
All Generations Shall Call Me Blessed: Biblical Mariology by Fr. Stefano M. Manelli. Trans. by Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner. New Bedford, MA: Academy of the Immaculate, 2005.
- The Burning Bush (1): Light, Love, and Creation
- Mary’s Immaculate Heart, Our Sure Refuge for These Times
- Total pulchra es, Maria! Immaculata, pray for us!