Listening to the still, small voice.
For the Sunday:
1 Cor. 1:10-18;
For Mary Magdalene:
1 Cor. 9:2b-12:
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, known as the Eighth Sunday of St. Matthew.
The Holy Myrrh-bearer & Equal to the Apostles Mary Magdalene. The Translation of the Relics of the Holy Bishop & Martyr Phocas.
Return to ByzantineCatholicPriest.com.
10:53 AM 7/25/2012 — This past Friday we celebrated the feast of the prophet Elias, or, as he is more commonly called in the English speaking world, Elijah. And the churches of the Byzantine Tradition, particularly those in the Middle East, hold his memory in particular honor. The troparion for the feast calls him the “pillar of the prophets and their foundation stone, the precursor of Christ.”
One of the things that distinguishes the churches of the East from the Roman Church is that the Roman Church does not celebrate any liturgical commemorations for the saints of the Old Testament. In the Eastern Churches, as you know, we have many such commemorations, and the feast of the prophet Elijah is one of the most popular. And the chants for the liturgical services of this day, particularly those of vespers the night before, call our attention to four episodes in his life which have a spiritual meaning for our own lives.
First of all, this particular prophet had an extraordinary experience of the presence of God. In the First Book of Kings we find Elijah wandering around looking for God. He himself says he is “jealous for God”; he wants to see God. But he’s looking for God in all the wrong places. He’s looking for God in the magnificence of nature, in all the grandeur of the desert around him. And he comes to a cave and goes inside, and there we read:
And behold the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind:
And after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake:
And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire:
And after the fire a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle....
It’s an extraordinary passage, because it begs the question: Where are we looking for God? In some magnificent sign, some overwhelming manifestation of his power? And when we don’t see that, do we then conclude, as many people have, that there is no God? Look at our Lord. When confronted with the prospect that Jesus was the Messiah, what do the synagogue leaders say in the Gospel for the prophet’s feast? “This can’t be the Messiah. This is just some ordinary Joe from Nazareth. The Messiah will be a great man.” Well, our Lord is a great man, and much more, but not as they were defining greatness. God came to earth as a still, small voice: the son of a carpenter, from their own country.
So, where are we looking for God? For those of us who are Christians, there’s a great temptation to view the spiritual traditions of our own faith as old and passé, even in a Christian tradition as spiritually rich as our own Byzantine Tradition. A number of years ago, when I was a pastor in New Jersey, I gave the parish a presentation about a spiritual tradition in our Church known as Hesychaism, a very mystical approach to prayer dating from the earliest times of Eastern Christianity. And I did that because I had some people in the parish who had a tendency to latch on to whatever new wave guru type spirituality they read about in the Ladies Home Journal in their search for inner peace. But God isn’t in these new and fantastic things. God is here, where we have always known him to be: in the Blessed Eucharist, in the sacrifice of the Holy Table, in the Holy Mysteries of the Church, in the icons of the saints, in the reading of the Scriptures, in the faith of one another—in a still, small voice. Nothing new, nothing great, but in the things with which we are all familiar.
The second episode of Elijah’s life of which the liturgical texts speak is his confrontation with the pagan priests of Baal. It’s a very dramatic story and somewhat disturbing. The worship of the god Baal was the dominant pagan religion of Elijah’s time, and many of the Jews had been suckered into it through the influence of the emperor, Ahab, and his crafty wife, Jezebel. They were attracted to the worship of Baal because of the great and magnificent displays that the priests of Baal would put on for them, cutting themselves with knives and appearing to feel no pain—just as we were discussing: looking for God in new and magnificent things instead of in the still, small voice. So, Elijah challenges the priests of Baal to a kind of liturgical competition. He suggests that they build two altars in the presence of the people, one to their god and one to his. Then they would pile wood on each altar, and pray to whichever was the true god to send down lightening to ignite the wood on the altar of the true God. So, they agree to this; but the priests of Baal are hedging their bets, so they put dry wood on their altar and give Elijah damp, green wood for his. Then they both begin to pray, and immediately lightening strikes Elijah’s altar and the damp, green wood roars into a giant bonfire. And when the people see this they fly into a rage against the priests of Baal and kill them all. Hence, the chants for vespers say, “O wise Elijah, thou hast massacred the priests of confusion.”
What’s important for us to consider here is not the massacre of the pagan priests, but rather the fact that God didn’t even require the dry wood. The wood of our souls is often green and damp because of our tepidness, our slavery to our passions, our spiritual laziness, our many weaknesses and sins; and yet, God can still ignite in us the fire of his love and his will and the faith of the Church that worships him. We don’t have to be perfect and pure for God to live and work through us. He lives in us in spite of ourselves, particularly when we receive him in the Holy Mysteries. And we can be purified by that fire to live even better lives.
The third episode of Elijah’s life spoken of in the liturgical texts is the one for which he is most famous, and which causes us to want to bless our automobiles on his feast day. What they did on this feast before the invention of the automobile I don’t know;—blessed their horse carts I suppose—but, at the end of his life, Elijah, because of his intimate relationship with God, does not die in the traditional sense, but is taken up to heaven in a chariot made of fire. It is an Old Testament prefiguring of both the Ascension of Our Lord into heaven and the Assumption of the Mother of God into heaven. And it makes sense. Having found God in the still, small voice, having allowed ourselves to be consumed by the Divine Fire of God’s will, we should begin to care less and less for the things of this world, because the less we belong to the earth, the more we belong to God. Our lives begin to change, and we begin to live as the saints did, not part of this world, but in anticipation of our true home, which is heaven. Byzantine churches are decorated the way they are in order to make us feel that we are already in heaven, so that we might go forth and live our lives as if we are already there.
And all of these things converge in one more episode in the life of the prophet Elijah, which is mentioned in the last stichera of vespers. When the widow of Zarephath tells Elijah about the death of her young son, he takes the child to his own bed, and lies down on top of the body, stretching himself over it three times, after which the boy comes to life again. It’s an odd story for being in the Old Testament, since we are accustomed to only reading about our Lord raising someone from the dead. But Elijah did, and our Lord talked about it. When he was explaining to the Jews that salvation was not going to be restricted to them alone, he said, “Many widows were in Israel in the days of Elias.... But unto none of them was Elias sent, save unto Zarephath, a city of Sidon, unto a [pagan] woman who was a widow.”
The life of grace—the spiritual life—the life of inner peace and holiness is available to all of us. But we cannot look for it where it is not. We find it in the Mysteries and traditions of the Church to which we already belong. And we don’t have to be perfect to benefit from them. Our lives can be as imperfect and green and damp as the wood on Elijah’s altar, and God can still grace us, if we are willing for him to do so, if we are willing to make an effort to turn away from the world and the things of the world and turn our attitude to heaven, living our lives for that goal rather than for some earthly reward.
Father Michael Venditti