I had just loaded my suitcase into the car and was headed toward the back gate of the monastery. I was departing for a week of personal retreat and my mind was already settling into a cabin in the silent, sunlit forest at Emery House. One of my brothers suddenly thrust a small vase into my hands, with three flowers: a bright pink peony, a red rose, and a white lily. He beamed, winked, and then vanished: a guerilla ambush of kindness.
As I set the vase down on the desk in the cabin, and as I gazed at it in the days to come, it became something of a parable. The peony, by nature already large and attention-grabbing, unfolded and unfolded until she was only light and air, all her petals cast with abandon onto the floor by day two. The rose, generous but with a measured gravitas, let her petals drop more slowly. By day four, rose had departed. But the lily was a sharp, closed cone of white: fuller and rounder with every hour but cloistered within herself. I became quite certain that I would see the exact moment she blossomed. I took a long walk on the morning of day six, and of course I returned to the cabin to find her moment had arrived… under the watchful eye of God alone. Yet the fragrance filled the room, as if to thank me nonetheless for my faithful waiting and vigilant watching.
The prophet Elijah, John the Baptist, and Jesus nestle together in the overstuffed vase of today’s lessons. Elijah, “who arose like a fire, his words flaring like a torch” presents us with an ancient, nearly superhuman pattern of the prophetic vocation. Larger than life from beginning to end, he departs in a blaze of glory: a chariot and horses of fire sweep Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind. The traces he leaves behind continue to smolder with his spirit: the cloak he entrusts to his apprentice Elisha and the pages of prophet and scribe whisper of his mysterious return. On the final page of our Old Testament, the closing lines of the prophet Malachi read: “Behold, I shall send you the prophet Elijah before the great and awesome day of Yahweh comes. He will reconcile parents to their children and children to their parents, to forestall my putting the country under the curse of destruction.”
John the Baptist comes to embody for his contemporaries a striking instance of the same prophetic pattern: words in the wilderness burning the conscience with fire, and naked truth unsheathed in the presence of the poor and powerful alike. It is Jesus who names the family resemblance explicitly: “Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased.” John’s head is presented to the wife of Herod as a trophy or plaything.
But it is Jesus, transfigured on the mountain in raiment white and glistening, in a guerilla ambush of revealed glory, who hints at the fullness of Truth soon to unfold for all to see. “So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” Jesus is revealed for a fleeting moment as the consummation of the prophetic pattern and the one who in his flesh will break the pattern. His own fate will tragically mirror the predictable deaths of so many prophets before him, yet it will be their unlikely interpretive key. A tight cone of meaning is firmly placed in their grasp, growing fuller and rounder by the hour. But its hour to open has not yet come.
In the second letter of Peter, we are given an allusive reference to this encounter, and to the gradual illumination of gospel Truth: “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” Having been attentive to the mystery entrusted to them, its fullness had released its fragrance to all – but in a way that shattered their expectations and defied the collected and documented clues. Not a chariot of fiery horses, but the rough wood of a cross. Not a burning torch but a morning star rising in the heart.
The days and hours of Advent continue to invite us to the work of waiting and watching: by lamplight, by starlight, and in the darkness before dawn. The God for whom we wait in Advent holds out to us a tight, firm cone of meaning, cloistered to our eyes but growing fuller by the moment, and the whispering of the prophetic page invites us to set it in the vase alongside the bright pink peonies and red roses. Truth dawns gradually, nearly imperceptibly, in dense constellations. One truth interprets another as present, past, and future collide and intersect, or simply glow together like candles circled in a wreath. It is only when “the Sun of righteousness rises with its healing in its wings,” and the lily releases its full, fine fragrance, that we will see the endless gratitude in the face of the Savior for our faithful waiting and our lifetime’s vigilant watch.
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