Thursday, February 12, 2015

Homily: Quinquagesima: The Last Sunday after Epiphany: 2015 updated

What are you doing here, Elijah?

St. James famously said “The prayer of a righteous man availeth much”. And the example he gives is Elijah: “Elijah was a man of like nature with ourselves and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth its fruit”. Elijah is often cited as an example of someone whose prayers were successful.

Not only rain and drought, his prayer provides food for a widow and raises her dead son; his prayer brings down fire from heaven to discredit pagan prophets. So it is somewhat surprising that in the first reading this Sunday Elijah’s prayer is not heard.

The big thing that got Elijah praying was that the King of Israel, Ahab, had married a pagan gal, Jezebel, who immediately set about converting the Israelites to the idolatrous worship of the Phoenician God Baal. Elijah wanted God to teach the people a lesson: so he prayed that there would be no rain on the land and there wasn’t any for 3 years and 6 months; he prayed again and the rain fell and the land yielded its harvest.

I suppose that there are those who would point to this as an ancient example of  man-caused climate change.  In fact when we pray, whatever we may think that we are doing, we are not actually simply informing Almighty God, what he should do.

The dilemma is, on the one hand, we know perfectly well that we cannot order God around; on the other hand, we are his children and as such are entitled to ask him for the gifts we want, not to mention the fact that he is always telling us in the Bible to pray. But, and it is a big but, excuse the pun, there are no guarantee that God will say ‘yes’. 

The explanation for this state of affairs is, although we cannot  change God’s mind, in his mercy he has allowed us to share in his providential care of the world: to be secondary causes, as St. Thomas says: there are things in this world which God intends to do only with the assistance of our prayers.  There is another ‘but’ and it is also a big but, he will not allow us to contradict his will, he will not allow us to mess things up too much, and if this is what we want, he says “no”.

In the first reading that, I fear, is what Elijah has done and God says ‘no’. Elijah is afraid, afraid of Jezebel, who has taken a contract out on him. To be fair Elijah has ordered all the priests of Baal to be killed. So much for diversity.  But God says to Elijah “what are doing here?” – in fact he says it twice: “what are you doing here” – the idea being that hiding out on a mountain is not what God wants the prophet to do and twice Elijah has the audacity to say to the Lord: “you are just lucky to have me around: I, I alone have not bowed the kneel to Baal and they seek my life to take it away”. What Elijah is supposed to be doing is not running away and bragging about it - I, even I only, am left – but submitting himself to God’s will.

Elijah has made three miscalculations: that Israel is the only nation that can serve God’s purposes; that Israel will always be under the control of Ahab and Jezebel or their descendants;  that only one man – namely himself –can possibly turn things around.

But Elijah has got it all wrong: the most important question is not who will be the next king of Israel but who will be the next King of Syria, for he will destroy Ahab. Next Jehu the son of Namsi will hurl Ahab’s sons from the throne and turn Jezebel into dog food. Elijah will not live to see all this but God will preserve 7,000 men in Israel who have not bowed the knee to Baal.

The problem with our prayers is not that God so often refuses to answer them but that we, like Elijah, are prone to miscalculations.  A moment’s reflection shows that this is inevitable: it is a case of God’s infinite knowledge and wisdom and our very limited knowledge about what is really going on. We are likely, more than likely to ask for wind and earthquakes and fire, when what God wants to gives us, because it is the necessary thing, is ‘the still small voice’.

Of course if we had to get our prayers right, then we would never pray, but the question is will we accept God’s answers to our prayers? Not with the fatalism of the Stoic or Eastern religions; we do not have to be without desires and preferences, feelings, but to realize the most obvious thing about prayer, as St. Thomas the patron saint of the obvious says: it is an inferior speaking to a superior.

Which brings us to the approach of Lent, for which this Sunday is intended to prepare us. Lent, we imagine, is simply a matter of deciding what we shall give up and what we shall take on, when in reality it is a matter of seeking an answer to God’s question to Elijah: ‘what are you doing here?’ Every day it is said, St. Bernard asked himself, ‘’why have I come here’. He was referring to the monastery but the question has wider application. Here is a simple and complete Lenten discipline: every day of Lent ask yourself ‘what am I doing here?' If you are at all like me, you will quickly discover that what you are in fact doing often has nothing to do with what you are supposed to be doing and you will be ready for your Easter confession.

I know of no better statement of what this involves than Blessed  John Henry Newman’s meditation:

God created me to do Him some definite service.
He has committed some work to me,
which He has not committed to another.
I have a mission.
I am a link in a chain,
a bond of connection between persons.
Therefore I will trust Him.
Whatever I am, I can never be thrown away.
If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him;
if I am perplexed, my perplexity may serve Him;
if I am in joy, my joy may serve Him;
if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve him.
He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about.

What are you doing here, Elijah?

No comments: