One of my favorite things about the season of Advent is the people we meet along the way. In the early days of Advent we have celebrated the Immaculate Conception of Mary as well as Our Lady of Guadalupe. We also remembered St. Juan Diego, St. John of the Cross, St. Lucy and St. Nicholas. We’ve been hearing from Isaiah all along in our first readings, and he has more to say to us still before we hear of his words’ fulfillment on Christmas Day.
Then there’s the prophet Elijah, about whom we hear in today’s first reading. Tradition and Scripture tell us that Elijah didn’t die; he was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot on a whirlwind as his successor, Elisha, looked on. It was expected that one day he would return. And so ever since, even to this day, the Jewish people have left an empty place at the table for Elijah at every major celebration.
Jesus makes it clear, however, that Elijah has already returned. In today’s Gospel reading, we meet Jesus and the disciples coming down the mountain from the Transfiguration. They have just seen Elijah on the mountaintop along with Jesus and Moses. And so they ask Jesus, as they make their way down, about the return of Elijah. When he tells them that Elijah has already returned, but nobody recognized him, they realize that he is speaking of Saint John the Baptist, that other Advent character that we have been privileged to meet.
And it’s a bit of a foreshadowing. Just as the people missed Elijah’s return, so they will miss Jesus’ return too. The Resurrection is a sure sign of God’s love and presence in the world, but how many didn’t believe then, and how many still don’t believe! For people to come to know that Christ has come and lived and died and risen for us, Isaiah’s voice must still be heard. John the Baptist did that by crying out in the desert. Now it’s our turn.
Today's readings | Today's saint
You know, it’s a bit of a happy coincidence that we have today’s first reading on this feast of St. Anthony of Padua. St. Anthony, of course, is best known for his intercession on behalf of all of us who are forgetful and lose track of things from time to time, or, if you’re like me, even all the time! But it is today’s first reading that really highlights the lost and found-ness that Anthony wants to help us with.
St. Anthony himself was one who longed to seek after God. He became an Augustinian as a young man. Later, seeing the bodies of Franciscan martyrs brought back to his city, he became a Franciscan in order to be closer to God. He wanted to be sent out on mission to preach to the Moors, but an illness prevented his doing that. Instead, God had plans for Anthony to become a great man of learning, study, prayer and preaching. Throughout his life, Anthony often found himself at the precipice of something new and adventurous. God always had plans for Anthony’s life, and often, they were different from what Anthony expected. But he was always willing to follow.
One could see him in that cave with Elijah, finding God not in the heavy wind, or the fire, or even in the earthquake. But knowing that the still, small voice, that tiny whispering sound, was undoubtedly the Lord doing a God-thing in his life.
Maybe we find ourselves today having lost track of our relationship with God in some way. Maybe our prayer isn’t as fervent as it once was. Or maybe we have found ourselves wrapped up in our own problems and unable to see God at work in us. Maybe our life is in disarray and we’re not sure how God is leading us. If we find ourselves in those kinds of situations today, we might do well to call on the intercession of St. Anthony. Finder of lost objects, maybe. But finder of the way to Christ for sure.