An Explanation of the Burning Bush

Introduction

During the month of Kiahk, the whole church lives in a state of preparedness so that we may be ready to receive the Incarnate Son of God. The most prominent sign of the Divine Incarnation in the Old Testament was the appearance of the Lord to Moses, the arch-prophet, on the Mountain of God, Sinai. The Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire in the middle of a bush.  Moses fasted forty days in preparation to receive the two tablets of the Testimony, written with the finger of God. Therefore, we fast the same period, in preparation to receive the Incarnate Word of God. We stay up during the night in worship, raising praises to the Lord, giving thanks, and glorifying God in a state of joy. The Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, expresses the spiritual feelings of the human soul when she lives in the heaven of God, frees herself from the ties of the language, and unites with the Lord.

When David the Prophet said, “Seven times a day I praise You for Your righteous ordinances” (Psalm 119:164), he clarified that seven is a complete number. In the same way, the Church organized the Canonical hours, or the Seven-hour prayers, to be prayed all day long. The rite that characterizes the Coptic month of Kiahk emphasizes this fact. This rite is known as “Seven and Four.” It highlights seven hymns (Theotokias) for glorifying the Mother of God, the Theotokos.

To learn more about the Kiahk Rites please see this article.

Hymnological Significance – Theotokia

It is a Greek word which means “Mother of God.” It includes a group of Christian dogmas, which are written in Coptic poetic language, followed by Glorification of the Heavenly Father, and our Lady Virgin Saint Mary.

Learn more about the Theotokias please see this article.

There is a large group of hymns organized to accompany each Theotokia. They are divided into two main groups, “Adam” and “Watos” (Coptic word for “bush”), according to the beginning of the Monday Theotokia, and Thursday Theotokia respectively:

  • The first hymn is: “While Adam was sad, the Lord was pleased, to restore him again, to his authority.”
  • The second hymn is: “The bush which Moses, has seen in the wilderness, and the fire that was in it, did not burn its branches.”

The first type of melody has a special tone and is devoted for Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday (Adam days). The second type is characterized by its long tone and is chanted on the other days of the week (Watos days).

There are several hymns that are chanted with these two melodies. There are also hymns which are arranged to be chanted with the four Odes, to explain their meaning and repeat the same ideas, some during Vespers or Matins.

Words of the Melody

The Theotokias contain many explanations from the Old and New Testament of the Virginal and Divine Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ from the Ever-Virgin Holy Theotokos St. Mary.  All the Theotokias have a common goal: to explain the Orthodox dogma, and faith of the mystery of redemption: God becoming Man in order to save us.

The Thursday Theotokia and its explanation “The Burning Bush” marvels at the Incarnation.  The refrain of the Thursday Theotokia is “He did not cease to be Divine, He came and became the Son of Man, for He is the True God, who came and saved us.”  The burning bush is a prophesy of the Incarnation of God and how His Divinity did not part from His Humanity for a single moment. Therefore, this melody is perfectly suited to explain the Thursday Theotokia and teach us about the Divinity of Christ and His Incarnation.

The first Coptic word of the Thursday Theotokia is Pibatoc which translates to “the bush”.  The words of the first part of the Thursday Theotokia explain how the burning bush is a symbol of St. Mary:

  • The bush which Moses, has seen in the wilderness, and the fire that was in it, did not burn its branches.
  • This is a symbol of Mary, the undefiled Virgin, which the Word of the Father, came and took flesh from her.
  • The fire of His divinity, did not burn the womb of the Virgin, and after she bore Him, she remained a virgin.

Compare the words of the Theotokia, with those of the refrain of the burning bush:

  • The burning bush seen by Moses, the prophet in the wilderness, the Fire inside it was aflame, but never consumed nor injured it.
  • The same with the Theotokos Mary, carried the Fire of Divinity, nine months in her holy body, without blemishing her virginity.

In the following 8 parts of the Thursday Theotokia, we declare our pride, honor, amazement, and the impact of St. Mary on humanity:

Theotokia Part Words of a verse that express pride, marvel, honor or amazement in St. Mary
2 “The pride of all virgins”…
3 “Which mind… or speech or sound can attain the unterrable expression…”
4 “Oh what an honor to the conception…”
5 “Oh what mysterious contractions…”
6 “Oh what a great wonder…”
7 “Oh what are these symphonies…”
8 “He bowed the heaven of heavens, and came to the womb…”
9 “I saw a miracle…”, “let us glorify the Virgin…”, “… the new heaven on earth…”

 

Similarly, in the burning bush, many stanzas end with the refrain “blessed is the pride of the human race”.

The melody of the burning bush contemplates and expands on many of these marvels that the Thursday Theotokia teaches us – about St. Mary and her life-giving birth to our Savior.

Theological Significance of the Burning Bush

The burning bush caught Moses’ attention.  How can such a small bush, be on fire, yet not burn? It was a surprising, wonderful scene.   Exodus 3:3-4 states “Then Moses said, “I will now turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush does not burn. So when the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses!””

Then God commanded him to take off his shoes, as the ground he was standing on was blessed by the descent of God onto the bush.  It was one of the first instances of God “descending” somewhere.  The passage explains that, from the burning bush, an Angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in flaming fire, all while the bush was not consumed. When Moses tried to approach the Angel of the Lord in the burning bush, a change happens in the text: He is no longer called the “Angel of the Lord,” but rather, simply, “the Lord.” In this passage, therefore, we learn that the Angel of the Lord in the burning bush is the Lord Himself.

But isn’t this confusing? Why would Moses identify Him as the “Angel of the Lord” initially and then switch to simply “the Lord” only a couple of sentences later?

The answer is beautiful and awe-inspiring.

The word “angel” (ἄγγελος) simply means “messenger,” one who is sent by God. We are familiar with the multitudes of holy angels who have ministered for our salvation throughout human history. These are the luminous and spiritual beings like the Cherubim, and Archangels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and many others. What we are oftentimes unfamiliar with is that our Lord Jesus Christ Himself is called an Angel or Messenger in the Holy Scripture, most notably in Book of Isaiah:

For a child is born to us, and a son is given to us, whose government is upon his shoulder: and his name is called the Messenger of great counsel: for I will bring peace upon the princes, and health to him (Is 9:6).

When Moses beheld the Angel of the Lord as flaming fire in the burning bush, he beheld none other than the Preincarnate Christ – Who is the Messenger, sent by God, while being of one Essence with God, as we say about Him in the Nicaean-Constantinopolitan Creed, “Light of Light; True God of True God; begotten, not created; of one Essence with the Father.”

This reality becomes especially clear when we consider how the Holy Scripture speaks of Moses as one who spoke to the Lord face to face as with a friend (Ex. 33:11, 34:10). Indeed, Moses asked the Lord with all boldness, “Manifest Thyself to me” and the Lord granted his request:

So the Lord said to Moses, “I will also do this thing that you have spoken; for you have found grace in My sight, and I know you by name.” And he said, “Please, show me Your glory.” Then He said, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” But He said, “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.” And the Lord said, “Here is a place by Me, and you shall stand on the rock. So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by.  Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen (Ex 33:17–23).

Behold, what graciousness! What love! What humility! The Lord of Hosts deigns to manifest Himself to His servant, Moses. But there is a seeming conflict here: why does the Holy Scripture say Moses conversed with God face to face if the Lord Himself said, “My face shall not appear to thee?” Also, didn’t our Lord Jesus Christ tell the Holy Apostle Peter, “Not that any man hath seen the Father, save he which is of God, he hath seen the Father” (Jn 6:46). What, then, did Moses see? The Holy Augustine answers this question:

It was [the Lord], therefore, under that aspect in which He willed to appear (but He did not appear in His own very nature) which Moses longed to see, inasmuch as that is promised to the saints in another life. Hence the answer made to Moses is true that no one can see the face of God and live; that is, no one living in this life can see Him as fully as He is. Many have seen, but they saw what His will chose, not what His nature formed … when He willed … not in His nature under which He lies hidden within Himself even when he is seen.

Augustine thus teaches that Moses did in fact see a manifestation of God, the Angel of the Lord Who is the Preincarnate Christ, face to face, but he did not see the face of God in His Divine nature as He is, for no man can see that and live.

This great gift which the Lord conferred on Moses is given to every person who beholds the face of Christ, the “Messenger of Great Counsel” Who came to us in all humility and love. The Holy Apostle Paul spoke of Him as the “Image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature” (Col 1:15). As the Holy Cyril of Jerusalem preached in his Tenth Catechetical Lecture, “Therefore, because no one could see the face of the Godhead and live, He assumed the face of human nature [in Christ], that seeing this we might live.”  And, in case there is any doubt as to whether our Lord Jesus Christ is God, of one Essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit, we recall the awesome scene on Mount Tabor when He “was transfigured before them: and His face did shine as the sun, and His raiment was white as the light” (Mt 17:2). It is no coincidence that, when His face radiated as the sun so that no man could bear to look at it, Moses himself was present as an experienced witness to the glory of God in Christ.

Like Moses, we behold the face of Christ through purity of life and zeal in Christian living. The Holy Basil the Great teaches us in his Long Rule 16:

The whole life of the saints and of the blessed, the example of the Lord Himself while He was with us in the flesh, are aids to us in this matter. Moses, through long perseverance in fasting and prayer, received the law and heard the words of God, ‘as a man is wont to speak to his friend,’ says the Scripture.

Thus, when we sing about the burning bush that Moses beheld in the wilderness during the Holy Month of Kiahk, we remember the Angel of the Lord Who appeared in the flames of fire, the Preincarnate Christ Who in all graciousness, love, and humility manifested Himself to Moses just as He continually manifests Himself to all of us who strive to behold His face in our lives.

Contemplation on the Melody

When we worship God, we say “we worship you O Christ, with your Good Father and the Holy Spirit for You have come and saved us.”  We know the True God, we know that He came to us, and is abiding with us; “Emmanuel”.  The incarnation of the Son of God is symbolized in the Praxis reading of the Second Sunday of Kiahk.  As the Fire of Divinity dwelt in St. Mary without consuming or burning her, so did the Fire of Divinity dwell in the bush which Moses saw.

The Burning Bush has 6 meanings:

  1. Symbolic meaning

St. Mary as the burning Bush – the fire of His Divinity did not consume the womb of the Virgin.

  1. Historical meaning

The circumstances around Moses’ vision: the Israelites in Egypt were under oppression.  They cried to God and in response to this cry, God appeared to Moses in the burning bush.  It’s as if God is saying, if the fire is the oppression, and my people are the bush, as long as I am in the midst of the bush, the fire will not consume the people, and I will deliver them from Egypt with a mighty hand.

  1. Prophetic meaning

The oppression of the Israelites in Egypt symbolizes the oppression of humans to Satan.  The people cried for so many years since Adam and Eve, and could not be redeemed from their sins, as they were under the oppression of Satan.  This is why we hear in the Pauline on the second Sunday of Kiahk to the Romans, “there is none righteous, no not one, there is none who understand, there is none who seek God…there is none that does good, no not one”.  St. Paul concludes in Chapter 3 that we need a Savior.  God saw our oppression under Satan, and the cry of His people for more than 5000 years and understood our suffering. So, He decided to come down from heaven to deliver us from the oppression of Satan – just as He delivered the Israelites from Egypt, to bring us to a better inheritance of the Kingdom of God.  The symbolism being:

  • Fire is as the oppression of Satan
  • The Bush is as the human race

Yet God dwelling with us (Emmanuel) delivers us from the fire of the oppression of Satan.

 

  1. Christological meaning

The burning bush symbolizes the unity between the Humanity and Divinity in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He is a perfect God and a perfect Human.  These natures are united together without mingling, confusion, or alteration.  These two natures are not separate but are united in a mysterious way.  How was the fire united with the bush?  The Bush was not consumed by the fire, and yet was not separate from it.  What a mystery!

This symbolizes the unity of the Humanity and Divinity in the Nature of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son, God the Logos.

  1. Spiritual meaning

The burning bush symbolizes us.  The fire symbolizes the consuming fire of God.  This fire did not consume the bush itself, but the fire consumes the thorns, and weeds around the bush.  It is a purifying fire.  In the same way Christ came, and is united with us to purify us, and to cleanse us from every sin.  The Catholic Epistle for the second Sunday of Kiahk mentions that “if we walk in the light as He is in the Light… and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all our sins” (1 John 1:7).

When we see the union between the fire and the bush, it reminds us of the union between us and God in communion.  With this union, the consuming fire of God does not us, but rather it consumes our sins and makes us a new creation, and pure through the righteousness of Christ.

  1. Theological meaning

We read in the book of Songs “for love is as strong as death. Its flames are flames of fire. A most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, nor can the floods drown it.  If a man would give for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly despised” (Song of Solomon 8:6).  The fire symbolizes the loving God.  This fire is the fire of love.  When we ask ourselves why God became man, and why He chose to save us, the answer is His love.  It’s a burning fire within Him; He could not help it but save us.  In the Monday Theotokia, we say “Your love has forced you…”, this love made God plan for our salvation by coming down to save us.  When we see this burning bush, burning with fire, we can understand how much God loves us.  St. Paul talks about this love: “He did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up on the Cross for our salvation” (Romans 8:32).  That’s how much God loves us; He died on the Cross to save us.

Conclusion

As we commemorate the annunciation of Archangel Gabriel to St. Mary on the second week of the month of Kiahk, let us contemplate on these meanings of the burning bush, and open our hearts to receive Him, and thank Him for His love.

Sources and where to go to learn more:

 

  1. Luke Sidarous, Dec 9, 2017 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bcINR5DuLcE

 

  1. Moses Samaan, Dec 17, 2015 https://www.lacopts.org/story/the-angel-of-the-lord-and-the-burning-bush/

 

  1. Bishop Youssef. http://www.bishopyoussefministry.com/sites/default/files/BishopYoussef-SecondSundayOfKoiahk-TheBurningBush.mp3

 

  1. The Holy Psalmody of Kiahk Published by St. George and St Joseph Church Montreal, Canada December 2007.
  2. https://www.stmaryofchicago.org/Article/Details/148