Sole to Soul
With the season of Advent quickly approaching its culmination in the birth of a backwater Christ, we are going to take a trip into the wilderness over a millennium before to a refugee turned shepherd turned revolutionary named Moses and his sandals. Fleeing the retribution of Pharaoh’s forces after killing an abusive Egyptian, Moses journeys to the land of Midian, where he finds refuge with a hospitable family that he eventually marries into. One day, while Moses is tending to his father-in-law’s flock, he shepherds them out beyond the margins of the wilds and comes across the most peculiar site of a bush on fire without burning up. As he goes to investigate, the Lord calls out to him from the flames encompassing this unassuming shrub and tells Moses to take off his shoes before getting any closer.
This is not the typical story we think about the week before Christmas, but it has something to say about preparing for and responding to an encounter with the sacred that feels appropriate. In this season of Advent, this season of preparing to encounter Christ in the birth of a vulnerable, infant refugee in poverty, what does the story of Moses and the burning bush teach us about the appropriate response to encountering the holy? How are we supposed to respond to an encounter with the holy?
- An encounter with the holy requires trust and faith, for it is an act of vulnerability.
- The typical response is fear and trembling. The sacred was thought of as this source of infinite power, and it was considered dangerous to go near. This story seems to flip distance on its head in favor of proximity.
- We must expect the unexpected.
- Encountering the holy requires openness to mystery.
- Moses perhaps felt unworthy. We can feel unworthy to be close to God, yet God says, “take off your shoes, come closer, come as you are.”
Keeping things like safety and hygiene in mind, study after study show that walking barefoot, especially in nature, is profoundly beneficial to our wellbeing. On the physical level, being barefoot utilizes more of our muscles and tendons. This strengthens our feet, ankles, and legs, which can lead to better body mechanics overall that can actually provide pain relief and reduce the risk of injury when done under safe conditions. It is not just physical, however. On the mental level, being barefoot increases our sensory input. When there is nothing between the soles of our feet and the ground we walk on, we are able to literally take in more information. One study found that when children walked and played barefoot, it actually increased brain activity and the formation of new neural pathways. This not only contributed to mental development but also to spatial awareness in general and a greater sense of connection to their surroundings. This is true for adults as well.
Of course, we must take precautions when it comes to things like exposure to the elements, perilous terrain, and hygiene, but it’s clear that being barefoot when it’s safe to do so is actually quite good for us and something we were made to do. In other words, being barefoot is our biologically original condition. There is a lot to be said for having nothing to separate us from the ground on which we walk, and I wonder if this lack of separation is in part what God had in mind when commanding Moses to remove his sandals.
In many cultural contexts, the act of removing one’s shoes before entering a home or religious space is seen as a sign of respect and humility. The thought is that by taking off your shoes, you are respecting the space in which you are in by not tracking in all kinds of dirt and germs from outside. But you are also removing a barrier of sorts, revealing a part of yourself as it is — humbly unadorned and naturally exposed. It can be quite a vulnerable thing to take off one’s shoes in the presence of others. Not only is it vulnerable because our bare feet are literally not as physically protected as they are in shoes, but it is also vulnerable because it exposes a part of ourselves that is usually kept hidden and concealed. It’s as if who we are in our original, natural state is something of which to be ashamed and to keep behind tied laces. That can be the mindset we have when encountering the sacred, too.
The belief tends to be that in order to encounter holiness, we must first dress up in finery, adorn ourselves appropriately, and pass the litmus test of righteousness; that we must first shake off the dust, put on a veil, and by no means get too close. But God says, no, come to me dusty, barefooted, and naked souled — for by being who you are at your most essential, your most vulnerable, your most exposed and laid bare, that is what qualifies you to touch the sacred and that is precisely the way in which God desires to encounter us.
God telling Moses to remove his sandals is not only a command for reverence in his encounter with the sacred, but also an invitation to connection as well — for it is only by first removing his shoes and exposing the naked flesh of his feet that Moses was able to truly touch holy ground. God telling Moses to remove his sandals is God’s way of saying: let nothing come between us, let nothing separate the soles of your feet from the soul of the sacred — not even the thinnest piece of leather. What follows in Moses’s reaction to this whole bizarre and shocking encounter, however, is quite telling of the human response to the invitation of vulnerability.
Verse 6 says, “And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” Fear is often the companion to vulnerability and true connection. We have been conditioned by society (and religion, if we’re being honest) to expect non-acceptance when we muster the courage to reveal our full, unguarded, exposed selves. We hear: “Oh, you’re too much of this. You’re too little of that. You need to keep that to yourself. You’re not enough.” And we’re left feeling raw and heartbroken. I wonder if some of the fear that Moses felt was due to his own valuation of himself as unworthy to touch the sacred, unworthy to look upon the holy, and thus scared to be seen and touched by God for fear of it being true and he being rejected. Yet, God knew Moses. God knew all of his strengths and growing edges, all of his successes and shortcomings, all of his desires and insecurities, all of his talents and impediments. God knew that Moses killed a man, and what did God say? — remove your sandals so that you can be even closer to the sacred. Remove your barriers, lower your defenses, so you might realize that there is nothing that separates us after all and that my love reaches every part of you.
To be without barrier or boundary to the holy — that is our original condition. To remind us of this truth that has always been, God decided to be the example. In an act of utter vulnerability and loving exposure, God laid God’s self bare in the flesh of an impoverished infant child — a child who grew up to have his body held, his robe touched, his bare feet washed with perfume as holiness incarnated. In defiance of a system that tried to place the holy behind a gate accessible only to the privileged few, Christ as Immanuel, God with us, says here I am in all of my vulnerability — inviting us into an embrace with the sacred in all of ours.
An encounter with the holy does not adhere to museum guidelines of “look, don’t touch.” Rather, God says: come and touch the holy and realize that you have been touching the holy all along — not after you’ve dressed up, not after you’ve checked all the boxes of sanctification, not after you’ve gotten the right degree, not after you’ve tithed “x” amount. No, come and touch the holy as you are — barefooted, naked-souled, and without barrier between us.
As we await and prepare for an encounter with the sacred in the birth of Christ, may we remove our sandals not only out of reverence but in remembrance of the truth that has always been: that who we are at our most laid bare in our most original condition is a beloved child of God ever inseparable from the sacred. Amen.