At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.In contrast to the appeal to our most fervent desires, picturing ourselves victorious over a world awash not in evil and despair, but mediocrity and insipidness, how can these Scriptural injunctions compare? How is it possible to heed that tiny voice in the midst of the far more attractive violence of the storm and earthquake? How is it we can bow before the one who, rather than embrace struggle against the forces that would kill him, went in silent freedom to a pitiful death, empty even of the power of appeal to the Father whose name he invoked so often before to the benefit of others?
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’
He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces 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 sound of sheer silence.
1 Kings 19:9-12 (NRSV)
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
What does the God of Jesus offer us that can compare to glorious victory over the stupidity, venality, and slavery of so many? How is it possible to say "Yes" to one as weak and servile as this?
Few contemporary examples from popular culture capture this desire to be the Hero more than the 2006 war porn/epic 300. Just this little snippet should suffice to create our visceral reaction as we cheer on the defiant Spartans, facing the might of the Persians at Thermopylae:
Contrast that with the following scene from a very different film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?:
In the midst of strife, a congregation on their way to the river sings lightly, casting peace and light that silences their arguing, quiets their hunger, and impels Delmar to rush in for his baptism. Which is more appealing: The defiant claim of the Spartans to fight in the shade cast by the Persian arrows? Or Delmar's injunction, "Come on in boys! The water is fine."
Shouldn't even require much thought, I would think.
Yet, it is precisely this contrast that renders the choices so stark. Do we surrender to the appeal for drama and struggle, always - of course! - with ourselves as victors? Or do we, rather, surrender to this other narrative that promises only strife and rejection, with its insistence on our subservience, even an appeal to empty ourselves?
Why be still, when all around us the ebb and flow of chaos bids us join it in struggle to prove ourselves? Why let ourselves become quiet to hear the sweet appeal to come to the river and bow our heads in prayer to a God so empty, so bent on His own way that even the blood of His own Son was not too precious a price to pay to soothe his battered ego? Why not, rather, reject such a monster, and toss one's lot in with all the rest who see through the facade of peace and love and joy for the shallow, dehumanizing film on a bloody history? Why choose to be yet another victim of such a creature?
If we are honest with ourselves - always questionable - we should admit at least this: none of us want to be weak, to be the victim, to be seen or understood by others as mediocre, as just another among many. The deepest cry of the individual is the cry to be heard as one is, in all one's integrity, and for oneself and no one else. The call from the Cross asks us to abandon this most basic human desire. We are called upon to sacrifice the satisfaction of that which lies most close to us, that fear that dare not give its name: the fear that we are no more or less special or worthy than anyone else, rooted in the deeper fear that we do not, in fact, exist in any meaningful way.
The Christian life is one in which we abandon any pretense to superiority over anyone else. The Christian life is one in which we set to one side even the primal drive for personal survival. At the heart of the individual's relationship with God, as expressed in the sacraments and liturgy of the Church, is the constant expression of our own unworthiness, the conscious recognition that we do not and cannot live on our own. Instead of the heroic defiance rooted in physical, intellectual, or moral strength, our lot is always to confess our weakness, or ignorance, our sinfulness and therefore unworthiness to stand before God.
When posed in this way, is it any wonder so many find it easy to set to one side the call of Christ to follow?
Except, of course, putting it this way is to forget one simple fact, something so easily overlooked it is soon forgotten in the rush and press of life.
The seductive whispers from below? They're all lies. The one whispering them is no more or less than a creature, a product of the Divine forbearance, allowed to exist because of the strangeness and inscrutable nature of Divine Providence. There is no power there; the heroic voice of Milton's Lucifer, of Nietszche's Anti-Christ are little more than gussied-up grunts from those who hate their lot, and fear the far more unsettling truth that they have already lost. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead, a deed done in the quiet and silence of the first light of the first day of the week speaks far more loudly than any shout of defiance. The quiet words of assurance from the risen Christ - "Do not be afraid" - silence any and all doubts among those who see in Him the promise of final escape from the darkness that calls to us, the chaos whose momentary beauty hides the madness that awaits should we pitch ourselves headfirst in to it.
The resurrection shows us, as nothing else can, that love is stronger than death (to quote Song of Songs 8); that the weakness and defeat of Christ is the only real power, the only real defiance against the ruler of the present age; that God's on-going project of Creation, in its simplicity, is beloved precisely because it defies the chaos that swirls around us.
When we turn away from the darkness, we are blinded by the light from even a single dim candle. Yet even that small light cannot be overcome by all the darkness that ever was or ever will be. In that reality lies the promise to which we cling, the faith to which we surrender our lives, the love that binds us all together from the Spirit that calls forth life from death.