(1 Kings 19:11-13)
Among the lessons of Christmas is the truth of the principle illustrated by this famous Old Testament passage. We often expect, or at least desire, special divine assistance to be instant and dramatic, like a superhero swooping to the rescue in a Marvel movie. And we lose hope when that doesn’t happen. But God only rarely works that way, and such dramatics have to be rare lest grace smother nature. Special divine assistance is in the ordinary course of things subtle and gradual – a still, small voice rather than a whirlwind, earthquake, or fire – but nevertheless unmistakable when the big picture is kept in view.
At the time of Christ’s nativity, the hope and expectation of Israel was a Messiah who would free the people from servitude, and in particular from subjection to the Roman Empire. And that is indeed what God provided, but not in the manner anticipated. The Messiah arrived, not leading an army in pitched battle, but as a lowly infant in an obscure village. The servitude he freed us from is the most grievous of all, enslavement to sin. And he accomplished something much grander than the mere conquest of the Empire – he converted it. This played out over the course of centuries, and only after much shedding of the blood of his followers. But the end result is undeniable, and made an immeasurably greater difference to world history than a mere victory in battle would have. As his enemy Julian the Apostate lamented after failing to restore the old order Christ upended: “You have conquered, O Galilean!"
It is a lesson that bears repeating when the hope, faith, and indeed charity of many are challenged in the face of seemingly unprecedented crises facing the world and the Church. We cry out to God for aid – and we want it now, and in this manner – and we cannot fathom why he has permitted things to go on as they have for years, indeed decades. But five years, or fifty years, or five hundred – what is that to God? And if he wills to rescue his Church no more swiftly or theatrically – but also no less surely – than the manner in which he first built it, what is that to us?
If we do not perceive his action, in our own lives or in the Church, it may be that we are looking for it in the wrong place – in something analogous to wind, earthquake, or fire. It may be that it is to be found instead in something like the still, small voice that spoke to Elijah, and from the manger in Bethlehem.