"I am..." For us, this is an incomplete statement. We can finish the thought in so many different ways. I am a campus minister. I am a husband. I am a father. I am a brother, a son, a friend, etc. These statements all tell you something about myself; my occupation, my vocation, my relationships. All of these things make up part of who I am, but none of them are the totality of who or what I am.
I could be very specific and give you my name. "I am Matthew." This tells you who, but not what, I am. I could be very general and say, "I am a human being." This tells you what I am in the most basic terms. The statement "I am" can be read as "I exist as..." Other aspects of my existence may change over time -- my relationships may change, I can change occupations, or even change my name if I were so inclined. But I cannot change the fact that I am a human being. That is the nature of my existence.
A human being is one who has his "being" -- that is to say, his existence -- as a human. We are speaking of human nature, that thing which all humans, young and old, short and tall, black or white, male or female, possess in common which makes them distinct from orangutans and elephants and porcupines. To speak of a thing's nature is to speak of the type of existence it has. When you read the word "tree" you have an image in your mind of what a tree is, even though I have not written of any specific tree. We know that there are all manner of trees -- junipers, oaks, ash, beech, maple, willows, etc -- but we also know that all of these things have something in common, their "treeness," that makes them different from bushes and vines.
So it is with we human beings. We all share our type of existence in common. And it is this common human nature that makes up the backbone of our moral law. Catholic moral tradition is rooted firmly in the natural law, which takes as its basis our human nature. Put simply, when we act in accordance with our nature, we are doing moral good. When we act against our nature, we do harm to our human dignity, and do a moral evil. So this idea of "nature" or "essence" is very important to our lives even though natural law is not taught much in schools anymore, outside of a few philosophy courses.
All this is very interesting, you may be thinking, but what does it have to do with today's scripture readings? As I said to begin with, when we begin a statement, "I am," there are many different ways we can finish it, the most fundamental of which is to tell our nature, or what we exist as. "I am a human person."
So how does God complete that statement? What is God's nature?
In today's first reading from Exodus Moses has an amazing encounter with the Living God in a burning bush. God speaks to Moses directly. He tells him, "I am the God of your fathers," and says He has heard the cry of the people of Israel in Egypt and He will rescue them from their slavery. Moses asks a very simple, but important question. "If I go to the people of Israel and tell them 'the God of your fathers' sent me, and they ask me your name, what should I tell them?" In other words, who are you?
God's answer is short and profound. "This is what you should tell the Israelites: I AM sent me to you." God gives His name as, "I am who am." In Hebrew (which has no vowels), this is the tetragrammaton YHWH, the holy name of God which devout Jews dare not pronounce and even to this day cannot be spoken within Catholic liturgies.
For us, as I said, "I am" is an incomplete statement. We must qualify our existence by saying what we exist as. "I am Matthew," or "I am a husband," or "I am a human being." For God, "I am" is a complete statement. God does not "exist as" anything. He exists, period. "I am who am." He is existence. By revealing His name to us in this way, God is giving us a very intimate glimpse into His being. We learn something about God's unique nature. The divine nature is existence itself. To be God is to be existence.
What does this tell us about God? If we look around us in this created world, everything we see has two things in common. 1) It exists, and 2) it does not have to exist. All that we can observe, including you and I, has a dependent existence. We could just as easily not have existed and the cosmos would get along just fine. In fact, there need not be any cosmos at all when it comes down to it. We have a borrowed existence, and so the question arises, borrowed from where? Or from whom?
But since God's very nature is existence, He cannot not exist. His is the only existence that is not dependent upon something else. Therefore he must be eternal, never having a beginning and never having an end. Everything that exists does so only because it shares in God's existence, in His being. In this way we each have a share in the Divine Life. And we continue in our existence only because we are sustained by God's love. A great theologian once said that if God every stopped loving you, for one brief moment, you would vanish out of being.
In a few weeks time we will hear in the scriptures of the arrest of Jesus, of His trial and subsequent crucifixion on Good Friday. He will be accused of blasphemy. How did He blaspheme? It is because He made such statements as "I AM the bread of life," and "I AM the way, the truth and the life." He said, "I tell you, before Abraham was, I AM."
By making such statements, Jesus was identifying Himself, for those who had ears to hear, with the eternal God who is existence itself. Christ is YHWH. He is the Great I AM. He is life. And either he is wrong and guilty of blaspheming. Or He is right... and if He is right... well, then that changes things.
Understanding this is why the Apostles could meet their deaths with joy in their hearts, for love of Christ. It is why countless disciples and converts risked their own lives to live for Him. Christ is the One who spoke to Moses in the burning bush, who gave spark to all Creation, entered into Creation itself to redeem it. Realizing this means a paradigm shift. It means making fundamental changes in your life. It means repentance and conversion in the light of His love. It means nothing can ever be the same.