1 Kings 19:9,11-13
I’ve always loved this passage that we hear today about the prophet Elijah meeting the Lord in the tiny whispering sound and covering his face in response. And of course you know that I like to pry any time there are little details in the scriptures. So why does Elijah cover his face? We need not go far, for we find the solution in the passage from Exodus 33, when the Lord tells Moses that no man could see the face of God and live. Elijah took this literally, as did most of the Israelites, and so they thought that if they laid eyes on God then their life would end in that exact moment.
One of the things that theologians and scriptures scholars have often noted is the reality of God’s Divine Revelation continuing to unfold over the course of the years. God, in His love for us, knew that humanity could not fully understand everything immediately. So He set up ways to learn gradually and He started with the basics - things that were tangible, things people could see. From there He gradually brought the people to the point where they were able to connect physical events around them with a corresponding spiritual reality which is the true point. In other words the physical events of the Old Testament often prefigure a spiritual reality that actually is what the Lord wants to show us. For instance, in the Torah or first five books of the Old Testament, we see the Lord giving the list of the Ten Commandments and tells the people that if any of those laws are broken that physical death is an acceptable punishment. In the New Testament down to today, we realize now the deeper reality of things, that those sins really are a spiritual death (thus the name mortal sins) for us because they cut us off from God. The physical is now elevated to have a spiritual meaning.
Turning back to the passage about Elijah and Exodus 33, we ask what the deeper spiritual reality is in this case. Pope Benedict, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, discussed this in an interview (subsequently published as God and the World) and noted that the reality is that when we come into contact with the One True God, we necessarily walk away changed and must die to ourselves. Rather than experience a physical death, we are obliged to leave something of our former selves behind – specifically attachments to sin and worldly things, our own plans and even our personal hopes and dreams – and to simply follow after Him and conform ourselves more closely to Him. It seems a bit harsh to say that when we come into contact with the Lord that He desires that we give up our hopes and dreams and plans, but the reality is that the God that we encounter is the God who created us and knows the deepest desires of our hearts even if we are still yet unaware of them, so the reality is that while we have dreams and desires of our own, the Lord has even greater things in store.
We all have plans. We all have hopes. We all have aspirations. When I was younger I wanted to be a professional baseball player, then a rock star, and then a geologist. But in choosing to pursue a priestly vocation, I had to let those dreams go. As a teen and college student, I lived a life that I was content with in my sinfulness. When I chose to follow after Christ, I had to let set aside some of those former things. Even today as a priest I still have plans, hopes and aspirations for my time here and my life as a priest and yet I realize that those too must be given over to the Lord. And it’s tough to do that. This is why I think that so often it can be difficult for us to enter into silence, to go deeper in our prayer, and to follow after the Lord as we’re challenged to do by the Gospel: because we realize that if we really experience God like Elijah did, we might actually hear the whisper of God and must leave something of ourselves behind and give up those things that we ourselves have planned and that certainty of what lies ahead in exchange for the unknown. But in response to this fear and hesitancy, we need only hear the words Jesus speaks to His disciples today: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”