‘She named him Moses because, she said, “I drew him out of the water”.’
Today’s first reading summarises Moses’ early life, the early life of Israel’s great prophet, liberator and lawgiver. The Exodus has still to happen. The people are in Egypt. They have been growing in number. The Egyptian authorities are alarmed. First of all, they impose slave labour and then decide on genocide: every new-born boy is to be drowned in the River Nile.
So, here’s this bonny, new-born Hebrew boy, born to be drowned. He is saved by three women: his mother (Jochebed), his elder sister (Miriam) and Pharoah’s daughter (called Bitiah in Jewish tradition after 1 Chronicles 4:17). There’s a conspiracy of clandestine compassion on his behalf. Thanks to it, the course of history is changed, and the consequences are still with us.
Pharoah’s daughter is the most extraordinary of these. She’s not a Hebrew, but an Egyptian. She is defying her father by saving this boy – at huge personal risk. She doesn’t just rescue him; she later brings him up. More than that, she names him. She gives him the name he’ll be known by for ever. We know names matter in the Bible. Extraordinarily Moses – Moses! – is named by neither his parents nor the Lord; he is named by a pagan princess.
So he’s a man ‘drawn out of the water’, rescued from drowning. This is his first post-natal experience, beyond his conscious memory. He pre-experiences what the people of Israel will later experience under his leadership, when he leads the people through the water of the Red Sea. They will pass from oppression to freedom, he and his sister leading them in song. So Israel too will have this archetypal, foundational experience of being redeemed, rescued from drowning. A pattern is established. It will be relived time and again, individually and corporately. Read the Psalms or the book of Judges, or recall the story of the Exile and Return. Most of all, it’s the experience of the Hebrew, the Israelite, the Jew, Jesus. It’s the experience of his Passion and Resurrection. ‘I have sunk into the mud of the deep and there is no foothold. I have entered the waters of the deep and the waves overwhelm me’: the Passion of Christ. ‘Let your help, O God, lift me up’, as it did when he was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father.
Let’s think of this church in that light. Forget the challenges it presents us with today. Think of it as the work of a people who, after years of penal oppression, were at last feeling drawn out of the water. There’s such pride in the façade – not to mention the later sanctuary, which is a song of Moses in marble. ‘The poor when they see it will be glad, and God-seeking hearts will revive.’ How many must have done in 1788 and thereafter! It still lifts our hearts today. I saw a recent entry in the Visitors’ Book: ‘the bonniest church I have ever seen.’
‘I drew him out of the water.’ This is the primal experience of Moses, the foundation of Israel’s existence. It’s the Paschal mystery of Christ. And it’s our experience too, corporately as the Body of Christ, individually as his members.
The foundation of our Christian life is our baptism. If we were baptised as babies, we have as little memory of it as Moses of his experience. But our name too is ‘drawn out of the water’. After the likeness of Christ, as St Paul explains, we went down into the water, buried in his death, and were drawn out again, raised to new life. And this pattern too re-echoes all through life. Having been drowned in Christ, nothing else can drown us. Every immersion in suffering can be a prelude to a rescue. ‘I drew him out of the water.’ That’s us. That’s me. It happens in matters great and small, of body and soul, over the course of a whole life, on a daily basis, sometimes humorously so. Weren’t we all but washed away in Keith the other Saturday? But the Lord drew us out of the water, the Mass of thanksgiving was offered under a blue sky and people went home with uplifted hearts.
You may remember Pope Francis’ words in an early interview. ‘Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?’ he was asked. ‘I am a sinner the Lord has looked upon.’
‘I drew him out of the water.’
Do we have anything to offer others? Pope Francis thinks we have. Perhaps it is to share our experience, in Christ, of being drawn out of the water. The history of the Church is not a succession of triumphs, a smooth upward ascent. Nor is our own personal story. Perhaps they are more a succession of immersions, of near-death experiences, of Moses-like moments. Again and again, we drown and we’re drawn out. Again and again, there is the quiet courage of unexpected help around us, like that of those three women.
Perhaps Preshome is re-opened tonight to remind us of this.