I’ve been rereading for review Michael O’Brien’s Elijah in Jerusalem released in August by Ignatius Press. The story has seamlessly woven into my Advent readings from Isaiah and Revelation which focus on similar themes about the End-Times. The tribulations are great, the plagues horrific, death rides the world. In the midst of these apocalyptic themes, we see the Prophet Elijah, returning as one of two last witnesses to warn the Anti-Christ. He is humble. He can hear the still small voice of God.
Today we recall the End-Times and Christ’s Second Coming as we prepare for the celebration of his First Coming at Christmas. In both preparations, we must face judgment. We must clean out our hearts to be worthy to receive him at Christmas and to kneel before him at the Judgment. In both senses, these Advent scrubbings are made easier when we consider Christ is not only judge but loving redeemer, the Way, Truth, and Light. We are moved by love not fear, by the desire to be more like him, more in him, more a part of him.
It is this dependency, this trust, this smallness that is at the heart of confession and absolution. It is in the not-knowing that we find rest, not in the knowing.
I often wondered about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Why were Adam and Eve punished for desiring knowledge of Good and Evil? To be sure, they were disobedient which is reason enough to be sent out of Eden. But why that particular tree? Don’t we want that kind of discernment?
Our Father Elijah in O’Brien’s novel wrestles with an aspect of this problem. He wants clear instructions. He wants to know. His heart is eager to do God’s will, he fasts, prays, goes without sleep. But there are times when God is silent. Our Father Elijah cannot hear the still small voice that the Prophet Elijah of Scripture had heard on the mountain and Elijah himself had heard earlier. Our Father Elijah becomes despondent. Why has the Spirit left him? What is he to do next? Did he misread his earlier instructions? Wasn’t he supposed to leave Ephesus and journey to Jerusalem to confront a man who many thought the messiah and others thought the Anti-Christ? Weren’t he and Enoch, his companion, to be the two witnesses mentioned in Scripture? Was he having grandiose ideas of their true mission?
The doubts assail him. He doesn’t know what to do. He finally realizes that his demand for answers, his need for control, is in itself the obstacle. His need to know – to eat of that fruit – is preventing him from hearing God’s voice. Only in his humility, his trust, can he hear God’s voice and truly know, so that he can take the next step, do God’s will.
Father Elijah is a Carmelite monk, an order founded on Mount Carmel, the traditional home of the Prophet Elijah. The Prophet Elijah of the Old Testament retreated to a mountain to pray:
And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind n 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. (I Kings 19:11,12)
Our Father Elijah must learn to hear this still small voice as his namesake had done. He must seek a humility that opens his ears to hear. Being gifted with a keen intellect, the challenge is great to accept this cloud of unknowing, one embraced by Christian mystics going back to St. Augustine of Hippo.
Unknowing. A difficult desire. I love the old hymn’s refrain: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” I have often thought that the best cure for stress, anxiety, and depression is simply to trust in God. We still must plan, work, learn, organize, and arrange our lives. But at the end of the day, when we have done our perceived duty (the conscience of love), meeting the demands of family, faith, friends, vocation, we can release from prison any anxiety that remains.
We pray the Psalms and read the lessons for Morning and Evening Prayer. We pray an Our Father and a Glory Be. We invoke Our Lady with “Hail Mary, blessed art thou…”, we pray for others by name and intention, and for ourselves that we not lose the humility that will open our ears to God’s voice. “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). We quiet our hearts and minds. We listen to the words of the Creed on our lips, the Te Deum, the Jubilate Deo, the Venite. We then take our rest in the heart of God, in the palm of his hand. All anxiety flees, banished by humility.
On this Third Sunday in Advent, Gaudete Sunday (Gow-day-tay Sunday), meaning Rejoice Sunday, we sing an introit of joy:
We light the rose candle amidst the purple penitential candles nesting in their Advent greens, and we consider Heaven, having faced Death and Judgment on Advent One and Two. We await Christ’s advent at Christmas, his advent in our hearts and bodies in the Eucharist, and his Second Coming in Judgment. The way to Heaven is narrow we are told, rather like the eye of a needle. We need to be small enough and humble enough to cling to Christ as he rises us up, to enter Heaven with him.
And so the Church cradles us through the year, teaching us how to grow toward Heaven, with its seasons of penitence and joy. We are of the world and not of the world, living fully within creation yet knowing we are destined for something even greater and more glorious: Heaven.
And so we do indeed rejoice.