The Burning Bush
It’s hard for the pro-life movement to meet the high standard the world sets for it. Pro-choicers and even agnostic bystanders, irritated by the social and political conflict, are tempted to use any reason they can find to dismiss us as crackpots and cranks. We are committed to legal protections for the unborn; those who are not look to expose flaws in our commitment.
Though we can’t meet worldly expectations, we can still strive to achieve the simple spirituality of salvation represented in the story of the burning bush, which most Roman Catholic churches proclaimed this past Sunday. That spirituality can bring peace to our souls and keep us aligned with the heart of the pro-life movement, even when we can’t be its experts and superheroes.
The Herculean Expectations
And prolifers need such peace. Because we don’t have it easy. For example, we are expected to avoid endless legal pitfalls, whether arising from executive policy, legislation, or jurisprudence at both the state and federal levels—sometimes even affecting the affairs of other nations. If we lack omniscience, it can be taken as proof that prolifers don’t really know what they’re talking about, or worse, that legal protection for the unborn is intrinsically flawed.
That kind of legal mastery is already a superhuman demand; but then prolifers are also expected to be ever gracious, to welcome strident abortion advocates as well as reluctant mothers, and to discuss life-and-death issues without rancor or knee-jerk partisanship or recrimination. And, of course, prolifers are expected to excel in public virtues, to set an impeccable example for doing good in the community lest they expose themselves to the charge of hypocrisy: “You claim to be pro-life, but you didn’t contribute to my campaign to save orphaned cats from the animal shelter,” or some such.
Moses as Flawed Savior
Moses at the burning bush has much to teach us. His backstory reveals flaws: the deception and dual identity arising from his upbringing in Pharaoh’s household; a murder, albeit arising out of righteous indignation; a failure on his part to manage the violence even within the Hebrew community; and a shameful escape from Egypt. When God nevertheless commissions Moses to bring his people out of Egypt, Moses is fully aware of his own inadequacy: “Who am I, that I should go to Pharoah or bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”
God, however, assures Moses he will always be with him. And he promises Moses that his commission will ultimately be validated in an act of worship—when God awakens in Moses the latent priestly power by which he will mediate the covenant at Sinai.
In other words, Moses relies not on his own competence or credentials, but on God, and most specifically, on connecting his own people with the God who wants to save them. Prolifers can take the lesson to heart: Even when we’re out of our intellectual or political depth, our own God-given dignity enables us to apprehend the humanity of the unborn child—and God’s universal call to love.
Simplicity out of Complexity
There are at least two other lessons for prolifers in the story of the burning bush. One concerns the naming of God: “I am who am.” Over the millennia, philosophers have rightly elaborated on the manifold meanings such a concise appellation holds. They have observed, for instance, that the name “I am” suggests a God who is the basis of being, goodness, and truth; beyond all pagan conceptions of gods, this is a God whose essence and existence are one.
But if that complexity overtaxes Moses or his people, God insists that it suffices to identify him also as “the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob.” Which is to say, God wants us to know him via the covenantal relationships he has established with us. Never mind all the philosophy, God is actively engaged with us for our good, and seeks a permanent and loving bond with us. Even when we can’t explain the complex philosophical roots of the pro-life movement, we can nevertheless enflesh them for others by sustaining relationships built on kindness, patience, and mercy—the same virtues we want all of society to show toward the unborn.
The other lesson is the bush itself, which, most distinctively, was aflame but was not consumed. From the earliest centuries, Christians regarded the burning bush as a symbol of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Just as the bush burned but was not consumed, so Mary was conceived but not touched by original sin; gave birth but did not cease to be a virgin; became the mother of God without losing her humanity; and was assumed into heaven without suffering bodily corruption.
Mary’s destiny is not a superhuman ideal but rather a promise our Lord makes to all of us: That we can be passionate without doing violence; merciful without compromising our principles; persistent without exhausting ourselves or others. Though some prolifers may indeed show heroic perseverance, the basic goodness of the pro-life movement does not require endless battle, but merely consistent decency.
This week, precisely nine months before Christmas, Catholics commemorate the Archangel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary and her fiat. Like our Blessed Mother, we can transcend the taint of sin and, with love and prayer, bring the unborn Christ into the world.