The Book of Genesis tells us that God chose Abram, a nomadic sheep herder, to be the father in faith of many people. Elongating his name to Abraham, God made a covenant with Abraham, as he had with Noah at the time of the flood. God promised to give Abraham, whose old wife Sarah was beyond her child-bearing years, descendants as numerous as the sands on the seashore or the stars in the sky. Why did he choose Abraham? Why did He choose the Hebrew people to be the instrument by which He would prepare the whole of mankind for the redemption? That is a mystery. There is no human explanation for it. Why did God favor Abel's offering over Cain? Again, a mystery. But it was in God's ineffable Providence to choose Abraham, the patriarch who is invoked in The Roman Canon as our "father in faith," to build up a people singularly his own.
In a foreshadowing of the Redemption itself, God asked Abraham to sacrifice his long-awaited son, Isaac, on a pyre of wood. Abraham did not know why God was asking him to do such a thing. But He trusted in the word of God. God had asked him to make a sacrifice of his son. Who was he to deny the request? He trusted that God had some greater design beyond human comprehension. And by showing his desire to obey God without question and without delay, Abraham proved himself to be faithful. The sacrifice he was asked to make was a foreshadowing of what the Father had planned to redeem us by offering His only Son on the wood of the Holy Cross.
Christians are the spiritual descendants of Abraham. His physical descendants formed the Twelve Tribes of Israel, which were sold into slavery in Egypt through Joseph, the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham. The Hebrew people spent 440 years in cruel slavery in Egypt, symbolic of the captivity of the human race to the Devil by means of original sin (and also symbolic of each person's captivity to the Devil prior to receiving the Sacrament of Baptism). They grumbled and they complained, wondering when their liberation would occur. Many of them thought that God had abandoned them.
God showed his favor on the Hebrews when He chose Moses to lead them out of their captivity to the Promised Land. It was to Moses that God definitively revealed Himself as the one and only God (Abraham believed that he had been visited by the true God, but he and the Hebrews remained polytheistic until God spoke to Moses face-to-face). Although he considered himself to be ill-equipped to speak to the oppressor of his people, the Pharaoh, he accepted the assignment that God had given him to lead his people to freedom. As one of the several foreshadowings of Our Lord found in the Old Testament, Moses was the one with whom God established the Covenant of the Old Dispensation, the one that would last until Our Lord established His New and Everlasting Covenant at the Last Supper.
The Covenant of the Old Dispensation was inaugurated with the first Passover, an event recounted in The Book of Exodus. The Hebrew people sprinkled the blood of lambs on their doorposts so that the angel of death would "pass over" their houses as every first-born male in Egypt was struck dead. As St. Paul noted in his Letter to the Hebrews, the blood of animals can save no one. But the use of the blood of lambs during the first Passover was a foreshadowing of the fact that each of us is now signed with the Most Precious Blood of the Lamb of God, He Who takes away the sins of the world, Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And the ritual Passover meal was symbolic of the Eucharist, the fruit of the eternal Sacrifice offered to the Father by the Son on the wood of the Cross--re-presented to us in an unbloody manner today in every sacrifice of the Mass.
Led by a column of fire at night and by a cloud during the day, Moses marched the Chosen People to the Red Sea, where there were to cross over to commence their desert journey to the Promised Land. The parting of the waters of the Red Sea was a real event in the history of salvation. But we participated in that parting of the waters when we were baptized. For just as the Pharaoh and his army were swallowed up by the waters of the Red Sea when Moses used his staff to signal the wall of water to come crashing down upon them, so is it the case that the Devil and his minions are swallowed up by the waters stirred up in the baptismal font. We are freed from captivity to him just as the Chosen People were freed from their captivity to the Pharaoh.
Human nature being what it is, however, the Chosen People did not remain grateful to God for long. They grumbled about the harsh conditions of the desert, muttering that they were better off in slavery to the Egyptians. Are we any better? Having been freed from captivity to original sin, how many of us patiently endure the crosses that we are asked to bear? How many of us slowly give ourselves back to the service of the Devil by slipping into venial sins over and over again? How many of us excuse our own spiritual sloth, satisfied with doing the minimum, satisfied with giving First and Last Things only a passing thought now and then? How many of us feel enslaved by our baptismal calling and not by sin?
The desert journey of our spiritual ancestors is symbolic of several things. It is in the first place symbolic of the desert journey of life. We are called to wander in this vale of tears without grumbling. We are called to be faithful in the midst of great trials. We are called to be satisfied with the true manna come down from Heaven, the Eucharist, and to long for no other food. And we are called to realize that the Ten Commandments are written on the flesh of our hearts, being content to worship the true God Who has Revealed Himself entirely in the Person of Our Lord.
The Chosen People worshipped the Golden Calf while Moses was receiving the Ten Commandments. They grumbled so loudly about the manna that had come down from Heaven that God sent them quail to feed them. They got sick of the quail! Their grumbling at the waters of Meribah and Massah resulted in their being bitten by seraph serpents. Many of them died. They repented of their grumbling, being healed by looking at the bronze serpent Moses had made. He lifted high the bronze serpent to heal the people of the wounds they had suffered from the seraph serpents. We are called to look upon Our Lord, Who was lifted high on the Cross to heal us of the wounds caused by our sins.
Although Moses died before the Jews entered the land of Canaan (a result of his having complained about the stiff-necked people God had entrusted to his leadership), the desert journey was completed in forty years. But it was a short time thereafter that they began to worship false gods. Their leaders frequently were most concerned about pursuing the political lusts of their heart rather than being faithful to the Mosaic covenant. Even King David, chosen from the fields to shepherd God's chosen flock, became drunk with his own power and influence for a time, forgetting Who it was Who had chosen him to be king.
This is true, of course, even in our own day. Those who should know the true faith serve the false gods of public opinion and personal political expediency. Materialism and hedonism are rationalized as being consonant somehow with the faith. Both the spirit and the letter of the law written on the flesh of our hearts are ignored. The consequences of all of this in our day is eerily similar to those which faced the Jews: social disarray and anarchy. Over and over again, though, God spoke to the Chosen People through the Prophets--and through all of the events of their history. Micah, Amoz, Hosea, Nathan, Gad, Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah were among the prophets God used to speak about the coming of the Messiah. But there are none so blind as those who refused to see. As Scripture tells us, they had eyes but could not sea, ears but could not hear. The Chosen People expected the Messiah would liberate them from political bondage, never more so than when they were suffering under the cruel oppression imposed by their Roman occupiers. It was as though they had learned almost nothing from the Exodus or the Babylonian captivity. No, they were still looking for the political messiah. And aren't many people looking for such a messiah today?
There are few passages in the Old Testament which describes the sort of Messiah that would redeem the human race more telling than those found in Chapters 52 and 53 of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.
"See, my servant shall prosper, he shall be raised high and greatly exalted. Even as many were amazed at him--so marred was his look beyond that of man, and his appearance beyond that of mortals--so shall he startle many nations, because of him kings shall stand speechless; for those who have not been told shall see, those who have not heard shall ponder it.
"Who would believe what we have heard? To whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? He grew up like a sapling before him, like a shoot from the parched earth; there was in him no stately bearing to make us look at him, nor appearance that would attract us to him. He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity, one of those from whom men hide their faces, spurned, and we held him in no esteem.
"Yet it was our infirmites that he bore, our sufferings that he endured, while we thought of him as stricken, as one smitten by God and afflicted. But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins; upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed. We had all gone astray like sheep, each following his own way; but the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all.
"Though he was harshly treated, he submitted and opened not his mouth; like a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep before the shearers, he was silent and opened not his mouth. Oppressed and condemned, he was taken away, and who would have thought any more of his destiny? When he was cut off from the land of the living, and smitten for the sin of his people, a grave was assigned him among the wicked and a burial place with evildoers, though he had done no wrong nor spoken any falsehood. [But the Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity.]
"If he gives his life as an offering for sin, he shall see his descendants in a long life, and the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him. Because of his affliction he shall see the light in fullness of days; through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear. Therefore I will give him his portion among the great, and he shall divide the spoils with the mighty, because he surrendered himself to death and he was counted among the wicked; and he shall take away the sins of many, and win pardon for their offenses" (Is. 52:13-15; 53:1-12).
"Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up a righteous shoot to David; as king he shall reign and govern wisely, he shall do what is just and right in the land. In his days Judah shall be saved, Israel shall dwell in security. This is the name they give him: 'The Lord our justice'" (Jer. 23:5-6).
Ezekiel prophesied of the Good Shepherd, "For thus the Lord God: I myself will look after and tend my sheep. As a shepherd tends his flock when he finds himself among his scattered sheep, so will I tend my sheep. I will recuse them from every place where they were scattered when it was cloudy and dark. I will lead them out from among the peoples and gather them from the foreign lands; I will bring them back to their own country and pasture them upon the mountains of Israel. In good pastures will I pasture them, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing ground. There they shall lie down on good grazing ground, and in rich pastures shall they be pastured on the mountains of Israel. I myself will pasture my sheep; I myself will give them rest, says the Lord God. The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal [but the sleek and the strong I will destroy], shepherding them rightly" (Ez. 35:11-16)
The new Israel, the new Zion, as we know, is the Church. It is through her that Our Lord shepherds us to the true Promised Land of Heaven. And it was to give birth to her from His Wounded Side on the wood of the Holy Cross that He personally entered human history at the Incarnation, fulfilling all of the promises that had been made about Him in the Law and in the Prophets.