The Burning Bush, Auschwitz and Us

The Burning Bush, Auschwitz and Us September 20, 2011

“The Lord appeared to Moses, the merciful man, in a flame of fire; that is, in compassion of mind. But where does this flame come from? It comes from the midst of the bush: of the poor, the pierced, the troubled, the bereft, the naked, the afflicted. When the just man is pricked with the thorns of their poverty, he is set ablaze with compassion to have mercy on them. He sees that the bush, the poor man, burns with greater devotion, and is not consumed by his poverty.”[1]

The burning bush which was not consumed by the fire is one of the most important images found in Scripture. There are many ways it can be understood and interpreted.


Christologically, it represents the Theotokos who has conceived the God-man Jesus Christ and has not been consumed by the divinity of the Logos.  However, we must understand, wherever God’s presence is to be found, there we find the burning bush. And we know our God is a God of the poor. God promotes their cause. God is found in the midst of the poor, in their pain and suffering. God shares with the poor their pain and suffering and gives himself to them, so as to make sure they are not consumed by the trials placed before them.

Auschwitz, with the poor, suffering Jews who were treated with such contempt that their humanity was rejected, also found God was with them in the furnace. God, once again, was there; even when their livelihood was destroyed, even when their temporal existence was demolished, God was there with them. He preserved them. In his memory, in his very being, God was in the fire of the furnace and suffered with the persecuted Jew, finding himself one with them in their persecution. After all, he had faced such persecution himself while in the world with the suffering he faced on the cross. God was there in Auschwitz. Even in the midst of the fire, even in the destruction of their bodies and lives, God made sure their memory was not consumed. We remember them even as we see the great evil which humanity is capable of doing. They were with God, and God has shown his mercy upon them. The poor, rejected Jew in Nazi Germany was loved by God, and in that love,  God was able to dwell with them and make sure their lives, though destroyed, was not consumed by the fire of hatred.

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.’ And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  And he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’ (Luke 4:16 – 21 RSV).

Jesus shows us that the poor, the suffering, the neglected, are near and dear to God. In him, their burdens have been released. In and through him, they can be in the midst of the fire and not be consumed. This is not to say they will not suffer, they will not fear, they will not wonder why they experience what they do. They most certainly will. But they will also see in and through God that their lives will endure. They can suffer defeat in the world but find victory in eternity.

We are all poor in relation to God. We are all able to find ourselves in the burning bush.

For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.  Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.  If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire (1 Cor 3:11 -15 RSV).

Our God is a consuming fire and so comes to us in the midst of our own fires. Will we find ourselves to be a burning bush which remains unconsumed? Or will there be nothing left after God comes to us? Is there something worthy of refinement? If we have no love, we have nothing. So let us become people of love and people who love those God loves. Let us love the poor, for we are one of them. Let us promote them, for that is the cause of Christ, who has come to us, the poor, so that we may be saved. If we want to accept God’s elevation of us, if we want his merciful forgiveness of our debts due to sin, let us also forgive all debts and give to the poor our hearts. Otherwise, he might come collecting and we might find there is nothing left in us after our encounter with the flame of love that is God.

[1] St. Anthony of Padua, Sermons for Sundays and Festivals: Volume I. trans. Paul Spilsbury (Padova: Edizioni Messaggero Padova, 2007), 249.

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  • Mark Gordon

    Thank you for including Auschwitz in this reflection, Henry. Although oceans of ink have been spilled examining the Holocaust during the past 65 years, I don’t think we’ve even come close to comprehending the signficance of what to me was the defining event of the 20th Century. I’ve always been haunted by the following passage from Elie Wiesel’s Night:

    Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing. And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.

    Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
    “For God’s sake, where is God?”
    And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
    “Where He is? This is where, hanging here from this gallows…”

    That night, the soup tasted of corpses.

    • It is indeed a haunting event, and, of “Biblical” proportions. It is the kind of thing which we would expect a prophet to interpret and speak about. I certainly believe God was there with them, as with all the other poor and persecuted, however, that doesn’t make the human desire to understand it less. I am glad you (and I hope others) appreciate why I put Auschwitz in this reflection; it really is a telling example of where we can head, as a society, and where we place God, as a society (in the furnace) if we start ignoring the moral claim on all of us.

  • digbydolben

    Yesterday Troy Davis hung on your American gallows, and the Georgians refused to recognise whatever “Christ” was in him.

    Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.

    I lived among the German for two years; they are still paying, with tremendous psychic damage, and with alienation from their youth, for what they did to the Jews.

    The Georgians will pay for their legalized murder of a man who was probably innocent. “Turn the other cheek” will NOT cancel out karmaya.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Amen, Henry.