Take Your Shoes Off (Artful Devotion)

God Calling Moses (San Vitale)
Detail of 6th-century mosaic from the sanctuary of San Vitale, Ravenna. Photo: Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP.

Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” He said, “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.”

Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”

—Exodus 3:1–15

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SONG: “Take Your Shoes Off, Moses” by J. D. Jarvis, 1967 | Performed by Courtney Patton, 2014

Written by Kentuckian John Dill Jarvis, “Take Your Shoes Off, Moses” was popularized by Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys in the early seventies (with Keith Whitley singing lead). This performance is by country music artist Courtney Patton from Texas, recorded as part of Modern Trade’s Southern Gospel Revival project.

The first verse and chorus are taken from Sunday’s lectionary reading in Exodus 3, which narrates God’s first direct contact with Moses.

The second verse is based on a later episode in Exodus, where the desert-wandering Israelites are refreshed by water from a rock:

And the LORD said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. (Exodus 17:5–6)

The third and final verse references an instruction given just before the parting of the Red Sea:

And Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today.” (Exodus 14:13)

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San Vitale (c) Paul Dykes
Photo: Paul Dykes

One of the most impressive programs of early Christian mosaic is inside the Basilica of San Vitale [previously] in Ravenna, Italy. The Moses scene is found on the right side of the choir, in the left spandrel: Moses tends his father-in-law’s sheep, then removes his shoes in response to God’s call from the burning bush—which in this artist’s conception is pockets of flame that burn all over Horeb! The prophet Isaiah stands opposite Moses on the right spandrel. Between the two, in the lunette, are Abel and Melchizedek, both understood as types of Christ, offering sacrifices to God. Flanking the mullioned window above them are two of the four evangelists with their symbols: Matthew (with [winged] man) and Mark (with lion).


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 17, cycle A, click here.

Worthy Is the Lamb (Artful Devotion)

Agnus Dei mosaic
This 6th-century mosaic of the Lamb of God is on the chancel ceiling of the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. The lamb is encircled by a golden orb (enclosed with stars) and a fruited laurel wreath, supported by angels. Photo: Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP.

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice,

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”

And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying,

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

—Revelation 5:11–14

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SONG: “Worthy Is the Lamb / Amen” by George Frideric Handel, from Messiah (1742)

This video is a 2014 performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir—and you can find many more besides on YouTube. I’m partial, though, to the Oregon Bach Festival Choir and Orchestra’s performance on Easter Joy (2009), which you can stream on Spotify:

Handel was German but spent the bulk of his career in London, settling there in 1712 and becoming a naturalized British citizen in 1727. In the 1730s, he transitioned from composing Italian operas to composing English choral works, one of which is the world-famous oratorio Messiah. (Read Charles Jennens’s full libretto, a curation of scripture passages, here.)

People might assume that the so-oft-performed “Hallelujah” chorus is the finale of this majestic work, but no, that chorus concludes part two, capping off the narrative of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, and the early spreading of the gospel through the known world. The “Worthy Is the Lamb” chorus, rather, serves as the Messiah’s consummation, an acclamation of Christ’s full and final victory over sin and death that follows part three’s prophecies of the day of judgment and the general resurrection. The text is taken from Revelation 5.

San Vitale mosaic ceiling
Upward view of the east end of San Vitale, Ravenna. Left lunette: The Hospitality of Abraham and The Sacrifice of Isaac. Center (apse): Christ in Majesty. Right lunette: The Offerings of Abel and Melchizedek. Photo: Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP.
San Vitale mosaic ceiling
Photo: Jim Forest

The anonymous sixth-century mosaicists of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, gloriously visualized this passage in the cross-ribbed vault of the church’s chancel, just above the altar. Tens of thousands of tesserae (tiny pieces of colored glass, and clear glass sandwiching gold leaf) come together to image Christ high and lifted up as the sacrificial Lamb of God. Can you imagine worshipping in this space? It must have been so transporting for those early Christians of Ravenna: to enter and move toward their promised end in Christ. To be enfolded in this luminous vision of paradise that they enacted below in the liturgy.

To learn more about San Vitale and its mosaics, see this Smarthistory video. (Unfortunately it focuses on the two political portraits at the expense of the biblical subject matter, but nonetheless, it gives a good sense of the architectural setting of the mosaics.)


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Third Sunday of Easter, cycle C, click here.