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Water from the Rock | Reflection for the Third Sunday of Lent

Matthew Neugebauer

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Pope Francis presides over an Extraordinary Moment of Prayer to end the pandemic, March 27, 2020.
Exodus 17:3-7
Pope Francis stands in the great door of St. Peter's Basilica, looking out into the rainy, empty Square. He's decked in a humeral veil, hoisting a monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament. Though rarely a solitary figure, this time he's all alone.
It is evening on March 27, 2020. Much of Italy and throughout the world is engulfed in the first global pandemic in a century. The death toll is unfathomable, the measures to limit it unprecedented. Yet, despite these measures, it seems like there's no end in sight. 
Moses, a more solitary figure, is getting so much heat from the people. They're hungry. They're starving. They're tired. It seems like there’s no end in sight. Shockingly, they long to go back to Egypt: the oppression that they know somehow seems better than the desolation in the desert that they don't know.
In 2020, much of the focus was on "getting back to normal," "adjusting to the new normal" or outright denying that COVID even existed. Though lamentable, it's understandable: we're only human, our vision is limited, and we can only handle so much change and loss.
To the thirsty, grumbling, infant nation in the desert, to a people that has lost their vision, God responds as only the creator of the universe can: by doing something unimaginable, and even physically impossible. He tells Moses to pick up his staff—a reminder of when God turned the Nile into blood, exposing the impotence of the Egyptian River deity in contrast to his own liberating power. He then tells Moses to use the staff to whack a solid rock. He obeys, because, why not? God  used that same staff to part the Red Sea, offering the people the way to freedom. This time, out of that solid rock, he manifests another miracle: nourishing water, enough for the whole people.
St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 10:4, refers to the rock in question: “all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.” His mind is on the Chalice, the “cup of blessing that we bless…a sharing in the blood of Christ,” (v. 16) and therefore on the Eucharist itself. The rock “followed them,” a possible reference to the Rabbinic tradition claiming that after the grumbling at Meribah and Massah, the miraculous water source picked itself up and journeyed with the people. The tradition likely developed to explain why, in Numbers 20:1-14, the episode repeats: the people grumble, Moses hits a rock with his staff, and water comes out.
I’m simplifying things so we can focus on God’s response to the people’s thirst, how he enabled them to continually feed off the rock’s miraculous spring. St. Paul’s connection to the Eucharist is sound: the rock became a part of the Israelites ritual procession through the wilderness to the Promised Land. It was a ritual sign, enacted in the ritual itself, of God's provision on their journey through the wilderness. However, It wasn’t simply a “sign,” or a “thing signified,” but the Signifier himself: the rock was–and is–God's nurturing presence with his people. “The rock was Christ.”
As we near the midpoint of our Lenten journey, as well as the 10-year mark of Pope Francis' pontificate, we can recall that moment in St. Peter's Square that began the "Long Lent" of COVID-19. The specific liturgical moment is called "Benediction": the officiant blesses the congregation with the Sacrament, by making a sign of the Cross with the monstrance. Except that there was no congregation physically present in St. Peter's Square. The "Extraordinary Moment of Prayer" was sent worldwide online, where we, a global congregation, viewed it from the safety of our physically distant homes.
Before I continue, I should acknowledge that the service of Exposition, Benediction, or Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament (it took on a few names) is distinct from and secondary to the priest’s offering of Sacrifice and the faithful’s reception of Communion at Mass whenever possible. For example, introduction to the 1993 Order for the Solemn Exposition of the Holy Eucharist requires that “there must be nothing about the appointments used for exposition that could in any way obscure Christ’s intention of instituting the Eucharist above all to be near us to feed, to heal, and to comfort us.” (#7)
However, the closure of churches and the move to online worship highlighted the common thread between Adoration and Mass: the Blessed Sacrament is the miracle of God's very presence, the gift and Daily Bread of God's love for us, which enables us to continue our pilgrimage through the challenges, struggles, successes, and celebrations of life.
This, I believe, is why Pope Francis included Exposition and Benediction in this moment of pastoral care for a world experiencing a great deal of suffering. He invoked the healing and all-encompassing embrace of Christ’s own Body, beyond the empty Square, out into the homes and families of Rome and throughout the world – Urbi et Orbi. We needed to encounter, and still need to encounter, God’s abiding presence, especially in times of distance, disease, death, and desolation. We needed to remember, and still need to remember, that God is still with us, close to us, “to feed, to heal, and to comfort us” with his own life.
That Extraordinary Moment of Prayer, every service of Adoration, and every Mass, is a ritual sign, enacted in the ritual itself, of God's provision on our journey through our “deserts” of struggle and hope. Through the miracle of wheat and grapes transformed into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of God's Word made Flesh – a miracle even further beyond our imagination than water flowing from a solid rock – God sustains our lives, our communities, and the whole Church itself. In the Eucharist, we are “united in Christ” and “led by the Holy Spirit in [our] journey to the Kingdom of [our] Father.” (Gaudium et Spes, #1)
Those who have emerged from this pandemic, and are now thriving and keeping a Holy Lent in 2023, would do well to remember and give thanks to God for this nourishing gift of himself.
To those who are suffering, who continue to feel the physical and psychological effects of COVID-19; who mourn the loss of loved ones, the loss of belonging and community, or the loss of a status-quo: remember that in the Holy Eucharist, God journeys with you, God seeks you out, and God fulfills your deepest desires. As Pope Francis deftly put it 10 years ago, “the Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” (Evangelli Gaudium, #47)
Many of us have experienced both thriving and suffering over the past year or so, and I’m confident that none of us has emerged from this pandemic unchanged. Furthermore, no one is perfectly deserving of a prize, but all of us need the “medicine and nourishment” of God's gift of hope and love, offered to us in his Body and Blood. As we continue to journey through Lent, may we approach the Blessed Sacrament – adored and received – in thanksgiving and trust.

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