By Christian Bergmann
‘Theophany’ is the word used to describe what we encounter in today’s readings: the appearance or intrusion of God into human affairs. It is a kind of revelation, an unveiling of who God is, what he is like and what he is up to. We find this in both the Old Testament reading (1 Kings 19:9-14) and the Gospel reading (Matthew 14:22-33). Usually what God is up to when he appears is the breaking down of old ways of understanding and inviting us into something deeper, something stranger. He is intimately involved in the process of deconstructing our previous assumptions about who he is so that we can rebuild ourselves around a truer centre of gravity, a truer understanding.
For the prophet Elijah, this meant encountering the Lord in a manner he never had before: in what Rabbi Mike Comins translates as the “voice of fragile silence” (1 Kings 19:12; other translations have “still, small voice”). At Mount Horeb, the place where God revealed himself to Moses and the Israelites amidst fire, earthquakes, and storm (Exodus 19:16-21), God no longer was found in those things. Ancient Jewish commentary on this passage suggest that this encounter with God was an encounter designed to reveal to Elijah the way in which he had presumed to take the place of God. In his jealousy, in his zeal, through his dramatic confrontation with the prophets of Baal and putting them to death, Elijah had pronounced judgment that was not his to pronounce. In fact, Elijah believed he was the only one left faithful to the Lord. What this “voice of fragile silence” reveals is that somebody else is taking Elijah’s place now as prophet, and, in point of fact, there are seven thousand Israelites who had not forsaken God (1 Kings 19:15-18).
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus walks upon the water and reveals himself to be the same God who spoke to Elijah at Mount Horeb (Matthew 14:22-33). When Jesus says to the disciples, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear” (v.27), the literal meaning of the words “it is I” is, according to biblical scholar Brant Pitre, I AM. The very name of God. The entire Gospel up until this point has been, for the disciples, the breaking down of previous ways of thinking and understanding in order to make room for the deeper, stranger notions involved in “the kingdom of God” that Jesus was inaugurating. This is what the parables were: imaginative subversions of Jewish expectations and beliefs. Now, the disciples’ faith was being built back up around this strange and disconcerting person, Jesus of Nazareth, who by this point they could confess to be “the Son of God” (v. 33). God was not revealed here to be part of the storm, or revealed in the storm, but in the voice of the I AM who says: “Come” (v.29). He was revealed in the voice of the one who calms the storm.
Saint Augustine’s commentary on this passage of the Gospel contains a telling line that connects these two readings together: “Let us, looking at ourselves in this member of the Church, distinguish what is of God, and what is of ourselves. For then we shall not totter, then shall we be founded on the Rock” (Sermon 26 on the New Testament).
The prophet Elijah and the disciples both had to go through this process: learning what was of God and what was of man. It was God, the theophany of God, that helped this process along. They were all broken down so that they could be rebuilt around truer understanding.
Theologian James Alison asks us this question: “One can understand what might be meant by zeal exercised on behalf of a god who appears with hurricanes, earthquakes and fires. But what on earth might it mean to be zealous in the service of a still, small voice?”
That is the lingering question.