Over today’s readings hangs the constant threat of fire. In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus talked about the purging flames into which we must cast those wayward parts of ourselves which bar our way to God. And as tonight draws in, Moses ascends into a cloud of darkness to find the devouring fire of the glory of God. Jesus invokes the threat of Hell; for Moses, the danger is getting too close to God’s own blinding light.
The fire of God does not destroy, but perfects. His blazing glory burns away our iniquities, cauterizes the wounds they leave on the perfect Image in which He made us; yet in so doing, it heals us, and once we are healed, we can warm ourselves by the fire. And, when our eyes are accustomed to it, we can see so much more clearly by its light, see it reflecting off everybody, everything; but while our eyes are still weak, its brightness is blinding, a dazzling darkness, leaving us to grope blindly up the steep mountain towards the warmth we who are far off can only just feel. God is dangerous: fire that heals only by first burning, light that gives sight only by first blinding.
There is a curious symmetry between Moses’ ascent of Sinai to bring forth the Law of the old covenant and Jesus’ ascent to the cross to bring forth the Spirit of the New. The Old Covenant begins with Moses making a bloody sacrifice with all the people of Israel, ascending the mountain partway to feast with a select band of followers, going alone to stay for forty days in the darkness where God dwells, beholding the glory of the Lord, and bringing back the tablets of Law to Israel. The New Covenant is like a mirror image. It begins at the other end. Jesus’ ministry begins with Him being blessed by the glory of the Lord when the Holy Spirit descends on Him in baptism. He goes alone for forty days into the dark wilderness where Satan dwells, and then He has his meal, the Last Supper, again with a select band of followers, until finally He ascends to the Cross. There Jesus, God the Son, does not behold God the Father, but quite the opposite, experiences absolute Godlessness as He descends to Hell. Then, He returns resurrected to give us the unbloody sacrifice of bread and wine as a New Covenant, not of the Law but of the Spirit, and for everybody, the entire world.
More broadly, Moses’ ascent of Sinai is through the darkness of God to the light of God, from the multitude of Israel into solitary union with the Divine. Jesus’ ascent of the Cross, conversely, is from the light of God, through the darkness of Satan to forsakenness by God; but He emerges from His lone journey to be infinitely multiplied in His new, universal Body, the Church. Moses ascends from the many to the One; Jesus descends from the One to the many.
Nonetheless, the New Covenant, sealed by Jesus’ self-sacrifice for the world, would not have been possible without the Old. He says Himself that He came not to destroy the Law but to fulfil it. Moses’ ascent into the darkness of God is the prerequisite of Jesus’ descent into Godlessness, the emptying of Hell by which our salvation is assured: we do not have to go to Hell, because Jesus has been there for us. We do not have to know those flames. But if we would see the glory of God illuminate all of His Creation, we must shield our eyes and climb like Moses, however painfully, towards the searing, blinding light of God’s glory: by the discipline of repentance, allowing His fire to sear our sins and cauterise the wounds they leave; and by ascending into the darkness of the Sanctuary, to grope blindly towards the dazzling Eucharistic mystery of His invisible yet luminous Body and Blood. For as we consume Him, so are we consumed in His glory.