Saturday, August 06, 2011

The "Big Event" and the Still Small Voice: The 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Does God reveal himself in nature?  Many public intellectuals are intent on denying this, even as increasing evidence pours in from disciplines like astrophysics and biochemistry that point to a creative mastermind behind the complex beauty we observe all around us.

The relationship between divine self-revelation and the power of nature is a motif that runs through the readings for this weekend’s Lord’s Day.

As a reminder, in this period of Ordinary Time we are doing lectio continua of Romans in the Second Reading and Matthew in the Gospel Reading.  The First Readings are being chosen week by week from OT texts that are both pivotal to salvation history and also thematically relevant to the Gospel and/or the Second Reading.

This Sunday’s reading is somewhat unusual in that the strongest relationship is between the First and Second Readings rather than between the First and the Gospel.

The First Reading is Elijah’s famous flight to Horeb out of fear of Queen Jezebel of Israel.

It is truly unfortunate that the Lectionary does not include the entire chapter, which provides the backstory as well as key motifs that link this narrative to Paul’s remarks in Romans 9.

Elijah has just worked an astounding miracle at Mt. Carmel, a prominent landmark in the coast of what was then the northern Kingdom of Israel.  Elijah had a “prophetapalooza” with the 450 priests of Ba’al, culminating in a fire drop from heaven which consumed Elijah’s sacrifice to the LORD, immediately followed by the execution of the pagan priests.  It was a huge, publically-witnessed victory for the true Faith, the kind of rare event many of us often wish God would perform on a more regular basis.

However, it did not lead to mass conversion of the northern Israelites, the tribes that had broken from the House of David reigning in Jerusalem.  Instead, the pagan Gentile Queen Jezebel sent Elijah a death threat for his efforts, and he ran away as fast as he could, first to Judah, which was officially Yahwistic and therefore safe territory; and then to Horeb (=Sinai), the mountain of God where the LORD had revealed himself to Moses.

Why is Elijah running to Horeb?  Surely to renew his prophetic call by seeking out a revelation from God.  The parallel to Moses is strong.  Elijah is a kind of New Moses, who returns to the place where God first revealed himself to Moses as “I AM that I AM” (Exodus 3).

In 1 Kings 19:9, we read:

“There he came to a cave, and lodged there; and behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  10 He said, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.”

We should remember that Elijah was specifically a prophet to the northern Ten Tribes, that is, northern Israel, which had forsaken the Covenant of Moses and the Covenant of David, going back to the division of the Kingdom in the aftermath of Solomon’s reign (1 Kings 12).  This becomes significant when we approach the Second Reading.

Here is the First Reading in its entirety:

1 Kgs 19:9a, 11-13a
At the mountain of God, Horeb,
Elijah came to a cave where he took shelter.
Then the LORD said to him,
“Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD;
the LORD will be passing by.”
A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains
and crushing rocks before the LORD—
but the LORD was not in the wind.
After the wind there was an earthquake—
but the LORD was not in the earthquake.
After the earthquake there was fire—
but the LORD was not in the fire.
After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.
When he heard this,
Elijah hid his face in his cloak
and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.

This passage shows both a comparison and contrast with the original Sinai event.  God appeared in fire, cloud, darkness, wind, and earthquake when he first met the people of Israel at this mountain so long ago (see Exodus 19:16-19).  There, God spoke in a thunderous voice that frightened the people.  Elijah, a bigger-than-life personality who had a penchant for the Big Event (and had just put on a huge show at Mt. Carmel), perhaps wished for a repeat of God’s awesome Sinaitic revelation.  But as each natural disaster strikes the mountain, he senses the absence of God.  Finally, he hears God’s voice—but it is not the thunder of Sinai, it is (literally translated) “a still, small voice.”

We, like Elijah, often want God to appear in the Big Event, and wonder why he doesn’t.  But he does, and he has.  And Big Events seldom change the human heart.  God showed up in power at Sinai (Exodus 19), and forty days later the Israelites were worshiping the Egyptian bull god Apis once again (Exodus 32).  God showed his power at Mt. Carmel, and the next day Elijah is fleeing for his life from the pagan Queen of Israel.  In more recent times, God has shown his power publically as well, in well-known events like the dancing sun of Fatima, or the astounding public appearances of the Blessed Virgin to peopleof all faiths at Zeitoun, Egypt, for a period of three years.  These events do provide consolation to believers, and we thank God for them.  But they do not convince unbelievers or result in mass conversion of society.  Perhaps this is way Our Lord expresses such ambivalence about performing “signs” in the Gospel of John, and says to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” 

We observe a strong parallel between Elijah and St. Paul when we examine the Second Reading:

Reading II
Brothers and sisters:
I speak the truth in Christ, I do not lie;
my conscience joins with the Holy Spirit in bearing me witness
that I have great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart.
For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ
for the sake of my own people,
my kindred according to the flesh.
They are Israelites;
theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants,
the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises;
theirs the patriarchs, and from them,
according to the flesh, is the Christ,
who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

St. Paul and Elijah are both prophets who grieve over the resistance of Israel to God’s revelation of himself to them.  St. Paul mentions several of the salvation-historical events connected specifically with Horeb/Sinai: “the adoption (as sons of God through the Covenant)”, “the glory (of God’s appearance on the Mount),” “the Covenants (given to the people through Moses),” “the giving of the law (at Sinai),” “the worship (instituted by Moses),” etc.

Both Elijah and St. Paul grieved over the hardness of the hearts of Israel, and felt isolated in their ministry to convert their own people.  And yet, as God reminded Elijah, “Yet I retain seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him” (1 Kings 19:18)  There is a faithful remnant, and St. Paul himself will quote these words to Elijah a few chapters later (Romans 11:1-6).

The restoration of Israel was a prominent theme in last week’s Gospel, in which the Lord multiplied the loaves and fish, leaving 12 baskets full leftover, a symbol of the restoration of the Twelve Tribes.  It was Big Event, a publically-witnessed demonstration of the power of God (but see John 6:22-66 to see how effective it was in attaining a mass conversion).  Tired after his teaching and ministry, the Lord, like Moses and Elijah before him, seeks refuge and communion with God the Father by “going up the mountain by himself to pray.”

After he had fed the people, Jesus made the disciples get into a boat
and precede him to the other side,
while he dismissed the crowds.
After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray.
When it was evening he was there alone.
Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore,
was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it.
During the fourth watch of the night,
he came toward them walking on the sea.
When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified.
“It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear.
At once Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter said to him in reply,
“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
He said, “Come.”
Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus.
But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened;
and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter,
and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
After they got into the boat, the wind died down.
Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying,
“Truly, you are the Son of God.”

Here in the Gospel, we have the wind and the waves, the emblems of God’s power.  Yet the Lord is not in the wind and the waves, he is quietly walking and talking to the disciples.  Peter is like all of us.  Excited by the miraculous nature of the walking on the water, he wants to participate, too.  “Lord, command me to come to you!”  And so he steps out and begins to walk on the waves.  But despite the nearness of the Lord, and the obvious demonstration of Jesus’ power, he looks at the surrounding storm and begins to lose faith.  One would think that with the Lord Jesus physically present, one could muster more faith than this!  And yet it is the weakness of our nature.  Physical demonstrations of God’s power in the natural order do so little to enable supernatural faith in the long term.  Faith is ultimately God’s gift—a gift for which we can ask and dispose ourselves, but a gift nonetheless.

At this weekend’s mass, let’s give thanks to God for the consolations of his demonstrations of power in salvation history and perhaps also in our personal lives—healings, miracles we may have witnessed ourselves—but remember that supernatural faith cannot depend on these things.  God speaks to us most often in the “still, small voice”—in the quiet of prayer, in the silence of meditation on his word.  More often than not his Kingdom is like the leaven in the loaf or the mustard seed, whose growth, though real and effective, takes place quietly and unseen, through unnoticed faithfulness on the part of his people who have not bowed their knees to the other gods.


Anonymous said...

A number of commentators contend that Elijah did not go to Horeb to renew his prophetic call but, rather, to renounce it. Are you familiar with this line of interpretation?

John Bergsma said...

Hmm, I posted a response to your comment immediately, but the site didn't seem to take it. I think it is possible to read the narrative as you describe, but in my view it seems like a lot of effort to undertake to travel all the way to Sinai just to turn in one's ID card. If he wanted to shirk the prophetic responsibility, why not just jump on a ship to Tarshish? I still see Elijah's journey as an attempt to get back in touch with God and "talk things over with the boss" after the way the Carmel showdown backfired.