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The story that runs through scripture during Lent is of course the Exodus. I have followed it many years and sometimes get tired of it, especially when I remember it is purely mythical in the sense that there is no historical record of it anywhere. I never minded the supernatural or magical elements – dividing the Red Sea, Moses striking the rock or God sending manna to feed them in the desert. These have deep, satisfying levels of meaning. As does the constant lack of faith among the Israelites and poor Moses having to keep up their morale with God’s help. Last year, I stood on Mount Nebo ‘in the land of Moab’, where Moses stood viewing the Promised Land and learned from God that, because he had doubted, he would never cross the Jordan himself. This seems a bit harsh of God but it’s painfully realistic. We never reach the Promised Land in this life. When we think we do, we are soon disillusioned.
So, although Exodus is over-familiar and we might prefer to skip it, it still has power to grip and teach us something new. Recently I was interested to read an interpretation that saw it as the earliest story protest against slavery as a social institution: the divine element in it was the affirmation of universal human dignity. The fact that the escaped slaves find freedom a burden and at times want to go back makes it psychologically very convincing.
Children love familiar stories when they go to sleep and so do cultures that stretch over millennia. Humans think in stories. Overwhelmed by data or opinion we revert to making up a story, even a conspiracy theory any fool can understand. To persuade people about something tell them a story, don’t show them graphs. We dream in stories. How do we put them together so effortlessly and feel them so terrifying or blissful – and yet so difficult to recount to someone else without making them sound trivial or silly? We remember in stories even if we twist the facts in the re-telling.
Stories connect us. We bond and find an identity through them. They then become not just my but our story in which we find ourselves and meet each other. Football supporters share stories of their team. Jews find this bond especially in Exodus (and the Holocaust) and Christians in the re-telling of the story and stories of Christ through the year and of his last hours during Easter. Through the storytelling over long stretches of time something soaks deep into our consciousness and distils as an experienced truth that cannot be narrated but nor  can it be denied.
So, even when you think ‘O, I’ve heard that before. Tell me a new one’, just remember Jesus on wine at the wedding feast: ‘the old is good’, he said. In fact, the stories of every known culture share a universal narrative structure. Someone has something to achieve, they face obstacles which they overcome, finally they achieve and return home. Like a trip to the shops or a hero on a quest or God becoming Man.
We come to know Jesus through a story oft-repeated but also as a story which, however elevated, is recognisably mysteriously akin to my story too. It’s not a coincidence that Jesus was also a master story-teller – as we shall see tomorrow.
Laurence Freeman
Lenten Reflections 2024
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