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Rock Steady

Fr. Nathaniel

In the Hebrew Old Testament there are two different words for "rock." The first, eben, means a stone as in a stone on the ground, upon which you might trip—as in Psalm 91: “The Lord will give his angels charge over you, lest you dash your foot on a stone"—or a stone which you might hurl at someone’s head in a fight to the death, five of which stones David collected and put into his shepherds bag, one of which did indeed end up in Goliath’s forehead.

The other word for “rock” is tzur, meaning a cliff, a bulwark, a mountain. If any of you have climbed what hikers call a “fourteener,” you’ll know what I’m talking about. You start going up and up, and even when you get to about 5,000 feet, the air is getting thinner, and it’s getting harder to breathe. When you get to 10,000 feet, it’s even harder to breathe, you can get altitude sickness, the trees start disappearing, and the sky starts getting darker blue; it starts to look more like outer space than earth. And when you finally get to 14,000 feet, you really feel like you’ve accomplished something, and so you would really know what this word means: tzur, cliff, bulwark, mountain.

Standing on the edge of one of these “rocks,” one experiences several different sensations, all at the same time. You notice a sense of God’s tremendous power, just thinking about the fact that he could make such a mountain. You also feel overwhelmed by God’s beauty and infinity as you try somehow to take in the splendor of that view—the valleys below, the clear skies, the sea, or whatever it is that you can see from there. But most of all, as you stand there on the edge of that 14,000 foot mountain, you start to feel dizzy—from the sheer height of your vantage point, as well as from the absence of anything below you—and so you start to cling to that mountain, you hold fast to the rock, and you begin to experience God’s stability and never changing protection.

This is the rock that we acclaim every morning when we sing, “Venite, exultemus Domino, iubilemus Deo salutari nostro”—“Come let us worship the Lord and shout with joy to the rock who saves us”. In Latin the word becomes salutari because God, our rock, is our salvation; he is the firm foundation to which we must cling always.

So also in today’s Mass, we have in the Psalm, “Blessed be the Lord my rock who trains my hands for battle, my fingers for war.” Again the same rock: tzur, the bulwark, the mountain.

Why does it say both “hands” and “fingers”? Because just as the body has many members but is one body, so also the hand has five fingers, but it is one hand. Each finger has its own specific task or its own specific grace, but they all fight the same war, the one war of David, or Christ rather, against Goliath, or rather against “principalities and powers and rulers of this world of darkness.”

The two witnesses in today’s first reading from Revelation—and we sure would like to know who they are—were also waging this war, or rather, Goliath was waging it against them; but who they are remains a deep mystery.

There is a tradition among some of the fathers that they are Elijah and Enoch. I myself like to think of them as Elijah and Moses, for one thing because they were the two who spoke with our Lord during the Transfiguration concerning his “exodus.” But also because of what the reading says about them: They have power to close up the sky so that no rain can fall—which is what Elijah did—and they have power to turn water into blood—which is what Moses did. And besides that, there is reason to believe, as St. Augustine says, that Elijah is still alive and will come back before our Lord returns. Moses also may perhaps have already risen from the dead, since no one knows where his body is. That seems to be a great mystery: where Moses body is. In any case, we really don’t know for sure who these witnesses are. We must wait and see.

Against these two, whoever they may be, the beast that comes up from the abyss will wage war against them and conquer them and kill them. And so they die but they are raised from the dead by the breath of the new David himself: the new David who both hurls the stone and who is the rock of our salvation.

Today, here on this altar, we wage this war. Christ our King will take into his hands, into his fingers, a tiny piece of bread, as small as a pebble, and it becomes God who is our salvation, the rock who saves us. Today, we encounter he who is the God not of the dead but of the living, and he says to us, “Come up here.” May we sing to him forever a new song, with Moses, Elijah, Enoch, and most of all with Mary, who will crush the serpent’s head and bring about the kingdom of Christ once and for all. Amen.

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