From: All God’s Angels
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. (Exodus 3:1-6)
In this case, God’s angel appears under the most ordinary of circumstances, as Moses is going about his day’s work herding sheep. The encounter itself, however, is anything but ordinary. The voice of God, an angel, flames of fire, and a common thorn bush that, while ablaze, nevertheless remains unscorched: these are not everyday occurrences. And while we will probably never experience anything quite so dramatic, we can learn a great deal from this event.
The sunrise over the Midian wilderness gave Moses no clue that his world was about to be upended. No sign appeared in the sky to prepare him for an impending miracle. The countryside was the same; the bleating of the sheep was the same; Moses’s duties were the same. It was a typical day but for one thing: it was God’s appointed day to send his angel to meet with Moses. In order to do so, God had to get his attention.
“I must turn aside and look at this great sight,” said Moses when he saw the bush all aflame. But what if Moses had been “too busy” to turn? What if he thought his schedule was too tight to fit in such a diversion? What if he were so busy living his typical day that he would not allow his focus to be interrupted? Moses’s experience tells us that God will do what he must to snap us out of our lethargy and “normalcy” in order to speak to us. Could it be that some of the unexpected – even unwelcome – intrusions in our day are really “angelic” fireworks meant to make us step off our well-worn path long enough to watch and to listen?
There is a famous image of this story in the Vatican, painted by Raphael in 1511. We often imagine God speaking to Moses from out of the burning bush, and pass over the words of the text: “the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire.” In order to convey both the angel of the Lord in the flames and God himself calling out of the bush, Raphael paints two figures. Moses’s face and body are bowed down before both. And the artist goes a step further. He turns the flying embers of the fiery bush into seraphim with blazing wings. An insightful artistic choice, because the name seraphim means “those who burn.”
Raphael paints for us a theology in color. It is a theology of burning love, in which God seeks out his servant with patience and precision. Then, once he has our attention, he holds it long enough to draw us closer, long enough for the sparks of his glory to reach us and ignite a flame in our own souls. This is the work of the angels.