Dear friends, in the Old Testament God often reveals Himself to His people, including the prophets, through theophanies in creation. The word, theophany, is a term that means that God is revealing Himself supernaturally by appearing to others indirectly through the sensible signs or features of material creation. These standard signs or features of theophanies, besides earthquakes and smoke, also include wind, clouds, thunder, lightning, and fire. In this sense, in the theophanies of the Old Testament, God often uses natural sensible signs in creation, signs that have a material nature, to reveal Himself indirectly to His people in a supernatural manner. In doing so, He reveals His glory to them, particularly His glorious governance of all His creation. Indeed, by revealing Himself in this manner, He proclaims to His people, once again, that there is no God but Him, for He alone governs all creation.
At the same time, you may ask yourself, why, in the Old Testament, does God reveal Himself to human beings in this manner? That is a good question. In fact, in the Old Testament, God addresses this question. He tells His people that if He ever directly revealed Himself to them, spiritually, in all His divinity, they would all die, for their humanity could not directly receive Him, not naturally. He would have to perfect them supernaturally in their humanity for them to receive such a revelation directly. After all, no human being, by nature, can see God and live. Accordingly, by revealing Himself to human beings supernaturally, but only indirectly, through the sensible signs of material creation, He saves them from death.
In today’s first reading (1 Kings 19:9a, 11-13a), God tells the prophet Elijah to prepare himself by standing on the mountain, for He is about to appear before him. As Elijah stands there, God reveals Himself indirectly, as in the great theophanies of Israel, by causing various natural sensible signs supernaturally in material creation. In particular, He crushes rocks on the mountain; causes an earthquake; and finally He creates a fire there. The reading suggests that these sensible signs that God causes supernaturally in creation, including the crushing of the rocks, the earthquake and the fire, are all great signs that reveal something of the greatness of God.
All the same, as great as these sensible signs may be, materially, as great as they may appear, God tells Elijah that he will not find Him in any of these signs, not directly. In this sense, He is telling Elijah not to search for Him in the appearances of the natural sensible signs of the theophanies of material creation, as great as they may be. In the Old Testament, this is a regular temptation for the people of Israel. They desire for God to reveal Himself to them in material creation by great signs. As a result, in their mind, they reduce God merely to the sensible signs, or appearances, that He causes in creation supernaturally. As I have already said, God never reveals Himself directly to human beings by such signs, but only indirectly, for He has no desire for them to die. Still, in the Old Testament, the people of Israel often fail to remember this teaching. In their desire for God to reveal Himself by the great sensible signs of the theophanies of material creation, they become concerned only about appearances. They desire sensible signs from God. As such, they conceive of God merely as someone they can see or sense. Consequently, they, more or less, reduce God, intellectually, to the status of a sensible creature. For this reason, in today’s first reading, God tells Elijah that he will not find Him directly in the sensible signs of material creation, as great as those signs may be, for He is not a creature.
On the contrary, God tells Elijah that he will only find Him, spiritually, in a tiny whispering sound, a sound that can only be heard, not seen. This sound is the whispering of God’s Word. In whispering His Word, God reveals Himself spiritually to Elijah by the intelligibility of the Word He whispers to him. This means that He perfects the mind of Elijah supernaturally to understand the Word he hears in the tiny whisper. In this sense, in revealing Himself to Elijah in this manner, He teaches Elijah that He is really spiritual, by nature, in His divinity. Accordingly, there is nothing material in God, for He is not a material creature. Only by hearing the intelligible sound of the tiny whispering of God’s Word does Elijah learn not to reduce God merely to the appearances of the great signs of the theophanies of creation.
In considering God’s message to Elijah in this first reading, the question is this: How is this message relevant and applicable to the people of today, especially in relating to their neighbors, other human beings? Above all, God’s Word to Elijah is a reminder for people not to reduce their brothers and sisters merely to their appearances, as great or as imperfect as they may appear as human beings. The temptation for people today can be to value only the people they consider desirable on the basis of their appearances. This would include valuing only people who are beautiful or handsome, people who are rich financially and materially, people who are healthy as human beings, or educated people who have college degrees. Of course, for a person to be beautiful, healthy, rich, or intelligent is not bad, but when people reduce a person’s dignity merely to such appearances, or sensible signs, they fail to see the person for who he really and fully is in God’s eyes. If they fail here, how they would see a person who is overweight, sick, disfigured, poor, or uneducated? Would they see him as God does? Or would they be tempted to reduce this person to his appearance? Would they be tempted not to value this person for who he really and fully is in the eyes of God?
In Scripture and Tradition, every human being has received from God a sacred human dignity, the dignity of the divine image of God. This dignity does not depend on the appearance of the person. On the contrary, he has this dignity, first of all, from his conception as a human zygote. Here he may not appear to be human, but he really and fully is. Indeed, he is really and fully the image of God. Secondly, a person may be suffering from a disease that has disfigured his appearance, physically, but he really and fully remains sacred to God as His divine image. Or a person may be uneducated and poor materially, but in the eyes of God, he still has a sacred dignity. In the Old Testament, God proclaims that human beings judge by appearances, but God judges by the truth of the heart. Yes, God forms a true judgment about a person, not by appearances, but by the truth of who a person really and fully is in His eyes, the divine image of God. In Church Teaching, the human heart is foundational to human dignity. As a creature created in the sacred dignity of God’s divine image, the human being has a rational and free heart. For this reason, he is called to know God, love God and serve God. This is the basis of his human dignity. I hope and pray that all people will open their hearts to see every person as someone who is sacred to God, not because of his appearance, but because of the truth of who he really and fully is before God.
In Christ with Blessed Mary,
Friar Mariano D. Veliz, O.P.