On Elijah's Lessons in Prayer

2011-06-16

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Here is a translation of the Italian-language catechesis Benedict XVI gave today during the general audience held in St. Peter's Square. The Pope continued with his new series of catecheses on prayer, reflecting today on prayer in sacred Scripture, in particular on the prayer of the Prophet Elijah.

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Dear brothers and sisters,

In the religious history of ancient Israel, great importance was given to the prophets, to their teaching and their preaching. Among them, there emerges the figure of Elijah, who was raised up by God in order to lead the people to conversion. His name means "the Lord is my God," and it is in accord with this name that his life unfolds -- [a life] totally consecrated to bringing about in the people the acknowledgement of the Lord as the one God. Sirach says of Elijah: "Then the prophet Elijah arose like a fire, and his word burned like a torch" (Sirach 48:1). By this flame, Israel rediscovers its way to God. 

In his ministry, Elijah prays: He asks the Lord to bring back to life the son of a widow who had given him lodging (cf. 1 Kings 17:17-24); he cries out to God in weariness and distress as he flees for his life into the desert, pursued by queen Jezebel (cf. 1 Kings 19:1-4); but it is above all on Mount Carmel that he shows himself in all his power as intercessor when, before all of Israel, he begs the Lord to reveal Himself and to convert the people's hearts. It is this episode, recounted in Chapter 18 of the First Book of Kings, that we pause to consider today.

We are in the Northern Kingdom, in the 9th century B.C., at the time of King Ahab, in a moment when, in Israel, a situation of open syncretism had developed. In addition to the Lord, the people also adored Baal, the reassuring idol from which they believed came the gift of rain, and to whom they therefore attributed the power of giving fruitfulness to the fields and life to men and livestock alike. Although they claimed to follow the Lord, the invisible and mysterious God, the people also sought security in a comprehensible and predictable god, from which they thought they could obtain fecundity and prosperity in exchange for sacrifice. Israel was yielding to the seduction of idolatry -- a continual temptation for the believer -- by fooling itself into thinking it could "serve two masters" (cf. Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13) and ease the impenetrable ways of faith in the Almighty by also placing its trust in a powerless god fashioned by man.

It is precisely in order to unmask the deceptive foolishness of such an attitude that Elijah has the people of Israel gather on Mount Carmel and puts before them the necessity of making a choice: "If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him" (1 Kings 18:21). And the prophet, the bearer of God's love, does not leave his people alone before this choice, but helps them by pointing out [to them] the sign that will reveal the truth: Both he and the prophets of Baal will prepare a sacrifice and will pray, and the true God will reveal himself by responding with the fire that will consume the offering. Thus begins the confrontation between the Prophet Elijah and the followers of Baal, which in reality is between the Lord of Israel, the God of salvation and of life, and a mute and empty idol that can do nothing, neither good nor evil (cf. Jeremiah 10:5). There also begins the confrontation between two completely different ways of turning to God and ways of prayer.

The prophets of Baal in fact cry aloud, stir themselves up, dance limping about, and enter into a state of excitement that culminates in them cutting their own bodies "with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them" (1 Kings 18:28). They turn to themselves in order to approach their god, relying on their own abilities to bring about a response. The idol's deceptive reality is thus revealed: Man thinks of it as something that can be regulated, [something] that can be managed with one's own strength, that can be accessed on the basis of oneself and one's own vital forces. The adoration of an idol, instead of opening the human heart to the Other, and to a freeing relationship that allows one to leave egoism's narrow confines in order to enter the dimensions of love and reciprocal gift, closes the human person up within the exclusive and desperate circle of self seeking. And the deception is such that, in adoring the idol, man finds himself forced to resort to extreme acts in the illusory attempt to subject it to his own will. For this reason, the prophets of Baal reach the point of even doing themselves harm, of inflicting themselves with wounds, in a dramatically ironic gesture: In order to get a response, some sign of life from their god, they cover themselves in blood, thereby symbolically covering themselves in death.

Elijah's attitude to prayer is quite other. He asks the people to come near, thereby involving them in his action and in his petition. The goal of the challenge he posed to the prophets of Baal was to bring back to God the people who had gone astray by following idols; he therefore wants Israel to unite itself to him, and to thereby become a participant and protagonist in his prayer and in all that is happening. Then the prophet erects an altar, making use of -- as the text says -- "twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, 'Israel shall be your name'" (verse 31). These stones represent all Israel and are the tangible memorial of its history of election, of predilection and of salvation of which the people were the object. 

Elijah's liturgical action has a decisive impact: The altar is the sacred place that indicates the Lord's presence, but the stones that form it represent the people, who now, through the prophet's mediation, are symbolically placed before God, becoming an "altar," the place of offering and of sacrifice.

But it is necessary that the symbol become a reality, that Israel acknowledge the true God and rediscover its own identity as the Lord's own people. For this reason, Elijah asks the Lord to reveal Himself, and the twelve stones intended to remind Israel of its own truth also serve to remind the Lord of His fidelity, which the prophet appeals to in prayer. The words of his invocation are dense in meaning and in faith: "O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that thou, O Lord, art God, and that thou hast turned their hearts back" (verses 36-37; cf. Genesis 32:36-37).

Elijah turns to the Lord, calling Him God of the Fathers; he thus makes implicit reference to the divine promises and to the history of election and covenant that indissolubly united the Lord to His people. God's involvement in mankind's history is such that His Name is now inseparably connected with those of the Patriarchs, and the prophet pronounces that holy Name so that God might remember and reveal His fidelity; but he also does this in order that Israel might hear itself called by name and rediscover its own faithfulness. But Elijah's pronouncement of the divine title appears a bit surprising. Instead of using the usual formula, "God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob," he employs a less common appellative: "God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Israel." The substitution of the Name "Jacob" with "Israel" evokes Jacob's struggle at the ford of the Jabbok along with the name change to which the narrator makes explicit reference (cf. Genesis 32:21) and which I spoke about in one of the most recent catecheses. This substitution becomes pregnant with meaning within the context of Elijah's invocation. The prophet is praying for the people of the Northern Kingdom, which was called Israel, as distinct from Judah, which indicated the Southern Kingdom. And now, this people, who seem to have forgotten their own origins and their own privileged relationship with the Lord, hear themselves called by name, as the Name of God -- God of the Patriarch and God of the people -- is also pronounced: "Lord, God [ … ] of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel."

The people for whom Elijah prays is placed once again before its own truth, and the prophet asks that the Lord's truth also be revealed, and that He intervene in Israel's conversion by turning it away from the deception of idolatry, thus bringing it to salvation. His request is that the people finally know -- and know in fullness -- who truly is their God, and that they make the decisive choice to follow Him alone, the true God. For only in this way is God acknowledged as He truly is – Absolute and Transcendent -- without the possibility of putting him next to other gods, which would deny Him as the Absolute by relativizing Him. This is the faith that makes Israel God's people; it is the faith proclaimed in the well known text of the Shema'Israel: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might" (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). To God's absolute, the believer must respond with an absolute, total love that commits his entire life, his strength, his heart. And by his prayer, the prophet begs conversion precisely for his people's hearts: "that this people may know that thou, O Lord, art God, and that thou hast turned their hearts back!" (1 Kings 18:37). By his intercession, Elijah asks of God what God himself desires to do -- reveal Himself in all His mercy, faithful to His own reality as the Lord of life who forgives, converts and transforms.

And so it happens: "Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, 'The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God'" (verses 38-39). Fire, this element at the same time so necessary and so terrible, which is tied to the divine manifestations of the burning bush and of Sinai, now serves to signal the love of God that responds to prayer and reveals itself to His people. Baal, the mute and powerless god, failed to respond to his prophets' invocations. It was the Lord who responded, and in an unequivocal way, not only by burning the holocaust, but even by drying up all of the water that had been poured out around the altar. Israel can no longer doubt; divine mercy has come to meet them in their weakness, in their doubt, in their lack of faith. Now, Baal the vain idol is conquered, and the people, who seemed lost, rediscover the path of truth and rediscover themselves.

Dear brothers and sisters, what does this history of the past have to say to us? What is this history's present? What is in question here first and foremost is the priority of the first commandment: to adore God alone. Where God disappears, man falls into the slavery of idolatry, as the totalitarian regimes of our own time have demonstrated, along with the various forms of nihilism that make man dependent upon idols, upon idolatry -- they enslave him. Second: the primary end of prayer is conversion: the fire of God transforms our hearts and makes us capable of seeing God, of living according to God and of living for the other. And the third point: The Fathers tell us that this history of a prophet is also prophetic, if -- they say -- it foreshadows the future, the future Christ, it is a step on the path to Christ. And they tell us that here we see the true fire of God: the love that leads the Lord all the way to the Cross, to the total gift of Himself. True adoration of God, then, is to give oneself to God and to men -- true adoration is love. And true adoration of God does not destroy, but renews. Certainly, the fire of God, the fire of love burns, transforms, purifies, but it is precisely in this way that it does not destroy but rather creates the truth of our being, recreates our hearts. And thus, truly alive by the grace of the fire of the Holy Spirit, of God's love, may we be adorers in spirit and in truth. Thank you.

 

[Translation by Diane Montagna]

 

Zenit

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