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; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.” When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here am I.” Then he said, “Do not come near; put off your shoes from 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. (Exodus 3:1-6)
Today the Church commemorates the Dormition of the Theotokos, the Mother of Jesus. Although not from the earliest days of Christianity, in Patristic times the burning bush in which Moses encountered God came to be seen as a type of the incarnation and thus a symbol of Mary. Orthodox scholar Daniel Hinshaw commenting on Exodus 3:1-5 notes:
In this scriptural passage, the Church sees the preincarnate Word of God speaking to Moses from the burning bush. The bush has been transfigured by the fire of the divine presence, revealing that matter can indeed be touched and illuminated by the holy. This is a foretaste of the transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor, where Moses was also present. It is the beginning of the journey culminating in the Word become flesh (John 1:14). This encounter between Moses and God begins to repair the break in the relationship between the first humans and God. After their sin, Adam and Eve hid from God in their nakedness when he called out to them (Genesis 3:9), whereas Moses, when called by God, removed his sandals at God’s command so that his naked feet might directly contact the ground made holy by God’s presence. God seeks out fallen man in the person of Moses and restores the intimacy of paradise in his command to remove the sandals so that there will be no barrier, physical or spiritual, between his creature and himself.
In this image of the bush, burning but not consumed, the Church has also seen a type of the Virgin Mary‘s bearing the incarnate Word of God within her womb. The great sixth-century Byzantine poet and hymnographer St. Romanus stated this most beautifully in his kontakion (hymn) On the Mother of God:
As once there was a fire in the bush burning brightly and not burning the thorn, so now the Lord is in the Virgin. For God did not wish to delude Moses or to terrify him, but, making known to him what was to come in the future, he showed the bush bearing fire, that he might learn that, to Christ a Virgin gives birth, and after childbirth remains still a virgin.
By virtue of the Virgin’s perfect obedience and full communion with the Word of God made flesh within her womb, she made it possible for all her children in the Church also to receive and bear God within themselves. This carrying of God who is Spirit within each Christian occurs through the paradox of intimate contact with the material. ‘Take, eat; this is my body‘ (Matthew 26:26) can only have real meaning when God becomes touchable in the incarnation. Then, and only then, is it possible for St Symeon the New Theologian to say in his prayer before communion, ‘I partake of fire, being grass, and behold a strange wonder, I am unexpectedly refreshed as was the burning bush, burning but not consumed.’ (TOUCH AND THE HEALING OF THE WORLD, pp 13-14)