15 October 2016

Homily - 16 October 2016 - Moses and the Sign of the Cross

The Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Dear brothers and sisters,

Nine hundred and fifty years ago this past Friday, King Harold II Godwinson and William, then Duke of Normandy, campaigned against each other at the Battle of Hastings. Having recalled the strategies employed in this pivotal conflict, I find myself rather intrigued by the military tactics employed by Moses against King Amalek. Whereas the two claimants to the English crown made use of volleys, charges, and even a feigned retreat in the battle that saw the end of Saxon rule over Britain, Moses, after sending Joshua to the front line, went up a mountain, sat on a rock, and extended his hands in prayer (cf. Exodus 17:8-13). It is a curious battle strategy, to be sure, yet it was successful one. Why?

Before exploring this approach of Moses, we might do well to explore the names of the persons involved in this battle. The ancient Romans had something of a proverb that said, Nomen est omen, the name is a sign. Sometimes it proved true, and sometimes not. According to the rabbis, the name “Amalek” means the “people who lick blood.”[1] Because the Lord God said to the sons of Israel, “No person among you shall eat blood” because “the life of the flesh is in the blood,” this was akin to calling Amalek and his people grave sinners and evil doers (Leviticus 17:12, 11). When Moses then, whose name means “drawn from the water,” engaged Amalek he battle, Moses battled against sin (cf. Exodus 2:10). Aaron, whose name means “mountain of strength,” and Hur, whose name means “fire,” assisted Moses in this fight.[2] As Moses prayed with the aid of Aaron and Hur, Joshua, whose name in Hebrew is the same as our English Jesus and whose name names “the Lord saves,” was victorious over sin (cf. Matthew1:21).

Here, then, we have a case where nomen est omen is true, where names are indeed signs. However, before we seek to understand what is signified for us in these names and in this battle tactic, we have to remember a key principle to the reading of Sacred Scripture; we have to remember that, as Saint Augustine said, “The New Testament lies hidden in the Old, and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.”[3]

The early Christian Tertullian pondered what light the New Testament could shine upon this Old Testament battle. He saw in the action of Moses a foreshadowing of Christ on the Cross. He asked:

But, to come now to Moses, why, I wonder, did he merely at the time when Joshua was battling against Amalek, pray sitting with hands expanded, when, in circumstances so critical, he ought rather, surely, to have commended his prayer by knees bent, and hands beating his breast, and a face prostrate to the ground; except it was there, where the name of the Lord Jesus was the theme of speech – destined as he was to enter the lists one day singly against the devil – the figure of the cross was also necessary, through which Jesus was to win the victory?[4]

Saint Justin Martyr agreed with this interpretation and said, “In truth it was not because Moses prayed that his people were victorious, but because, while the name of Jesus was at the battle front, Moses formed the signed of the cross.”[5]

If we, then, wish to be victorious in our battles with temptation and sin, if we wish to trample Satan and his legions, then we, too, must fight with the sign of the Cross and the name of Jesus. This is why the Sign of the Cross “is a formula not to be spoken lightly.”[6]

But there is something more, for as Moses engaged in battle with the name of Jesus before him, he needed the support of Aaron and Hur to form the sign of the Cross with his body. “For that reason the people conquered when they performed works not carelessly but with full consideration and virtue – not with faltering souls nor with a wavering disposition but with the stability of a firm mind.”[7] Is this not why Jesus spoke to the people “about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary” (Luke 18:1)? Is this not why Saint Paul says, “remain faithful to what you have learned and believed” (II Timothy 3:14)?

As we collected our prayers together at the beginning of this Holy Mass and presented them to the Father, we asked of God two particular graces. We prayed first that we might always conform our will to God’s, and, second, that we might serve his majesty in sincerity of heart (cf. Collect). We do not often give enough attention to the prayers at the beginning of Mass, but they contain a trove of spiritual insight.

If we wish to truly conform our will to God’s and recognize his lordship over our lives, if we wish to live in sincerity of heart as we serve the King of heaven and earth, then we should frequently remember the Cross, the sign of the Lord’s love for us and of his victory over sin and death. The sign of the Cross is, on the one hand, a most simple gesture and, on the other, a most profound statement of faith. To often do we enter the church, dip our fingers in holy water, and make some hurried gesture as if swatting away flies, not recognizing the great power that is in the sign we should make.

When we enter the doors of the church, we pass, as it were, from earth to heaven and doing so we become aware of our sins. We make the sign of the Cross to place ourselves at the service of the Lord Jesus Christ and to remind us of his grace and mercy. Indeed,

by signing ourselves with the Cross, we place ourselves under the protection of the Cross, [we] hold it in front of us like a shield that will guard us in all the distress of daily life and give us the courage to go on. We accept it as a signpost that we must follow… The Cross shows us the road of life – the imitation of Christ.[8]

It is on the Cross that we see the fullest sign of Jesus’ loving obedience to the Father, and for this reason the Cross shows us how to conform our will to the Father’s and how to serve his majesty in sincerity of heart.

The faithful have been signing themselves with the Cross for nearly two millennia now. We treasure the sign of the Cross because it calls to mind the essential elements of the Christian faith. Indeed, the first mention we have in writing of the sign of the Cross comes from Tertullian, who died in 220. “At every step,” he said, “when going in and out, when putting on clothes and shoes, when washing ourselves, when kindling the lights, when going to sleep, sitting down, and in every action we place the sign of the cross on our foreheads.”[9] We would do well to do the same, and to do so with attentive reverence and love, fully conscious of the sign we make, without being ashamed of doing so or afraid of being seen to do so in public.

On the day of our baptism, the priest or deacon, together with our parents and godparents, traced the sign of the Cross on our foreheads. As the minister did so, he “claim[ed us] for Christ our Savior by the sign of his Cross.”[10] The sign of the Cross is, then, a sign of ownership; it is the sign that marks us out as belonging to Christ and to no other. The Bishop, likewise, traced the sign of the Cross on our forehead with the sacred Chrism when he sealed us with the seven-fold gift of the Holy Spirit. We, too, make the sign of the Cross on our foreheads – and on our lips and over our heart - at every Mass when we prepare to hear the words of the Gospel so that we might keep the Lord Jesus in our mind, on our lips, and in our heart.

Like Moses, we, too, have been drawn from the water, from the water of Baptism, and so we, too, are called to fight against temptation and sin, relying on the strength that Jesus gives and on the fire of the Holy Spirit, keeping the Cross always upon us. If we entrust ourselves to its power by keeping the Lord in our mind, we can learn to conform our will to his; if we keep the name of Lord on our lips, we can serve his majesty; and if we keep the Lord in our hearts, we can live in sincerity of heart, living in the truth of love.

If we intentionally devote ourselves to staying within the shadow of the Cross and to lifting it high, the Lord will turn his eyes toward us, he will rescue us from eternal death, and bring us into the glory of his presence. There, we shall gaze upon the wondrous beauty of his Face and know the joy of his merciful love forever (cf. Psalm 32:18-19). Amen!

[1] Cf. David Patterson, A Genealogy of Evil: Anti-Semitism from Nazism to Islamic Jihad, Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp.43,244.
[2] Cf. Pope Saint Gregory the Great, Dialogue with Trypho, 97. In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament Vol. III: Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Joseph T. Lienhard, ed. (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 2001), 92.
[3] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Quaest. In Hept., 2.73. In Catechism of the Catholic Church, 129.
[4] Tertullian, Answer to the Jews, 10.10. In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament Vol. III, 92.
[5] Saint Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 90. In ibid.
[6] Thomas Howard, If Your Mind Wanders at Mass (Steubenville, Ohio: Franciscan University Press, 1995), 53.
[7] Saint Ambrose of Milan, Letter 7 (37).33. In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament Vol. III, 92.
[8] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. John Saward (San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press, 2000), 177-178.
[9] Tertullian, in Klemens Richter, The Meaning of the Sacramental Symbols: Answers to Today’s Questions, trans. Linda M. Maloney, (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1990), 132.
[10] Rite of Baptism for Children, 41.

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