Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Making Sense of Sunday: 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B), August 9, 2009

This series, Making Sense of Sunday, is meant to be an aid both to lectors and the people in the pews. I cover both the First Reading and the Second Reading, usually giving more attention to the Second Reading, since it's usually omitted from the homily and only rarely topically related to the First Reading and the Gospel.

First Reading: 1 Kings 19:4-8
Elijah was a prophet during the period of the divided kingdom. After Saul, David, and Solomon, the kingdom of Israel was split into a northern half (called Israel) and a southern half (called Judah). The northern kingdom was ruled by wicked king after wicked king, many of whom were killed by the man who succeeded him on the throne! The eighth king of Israel (the northern kingdom) was Ahab, who married a pagan woman named Jezebel. It was during the reign of Ahab (circa 874-853 B.C.) that Elijah manifested the power and presence of God, in the northern kingdom.

In 1 Kings 18, Elijah challenges Jezebel's prophets who are loyal to the false god Ba'al. On Mount Carmel, the false prophets and Elijah present sacrifices. The prophets cry aloud and even cut themselves with blades to try and get Ba'al to answer them and receive their sacrifice, but it is to no avail. Then, Elijah — whose name means "the LORD is God" — takes his sacrificial offering, douses it with water three times, and calls upon the Lord, Who answers by consuming the holocaust with a flame from the heavens which even dries up all the water around the altar! The LORD is God indeed! Elijah has the false prophets slain. This does not please Jezebel in the slightest, and she returns the favor, slaughtering almost every loyal prophet of God in the northern kingdom.

I have included the verses 1-3 and 9-13a in italics and placed between { and }. These verses are not part of the pericope (the liturgical reading), but they provide a fuller context to why Elijah is on the run, and what happens when he arrives at Mount Horeb.

{ [1] Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done —
that he had put all the prophets to the sword.
[2] Jezebel then sent a messenger to Elijah and said,
“May the gods do thus and so to me
if by this time tomorrow I have not done with your life
what was done to each of them.”
[3] Elijah was afraid and fled for his life,
going to Beer-sheba of Judah.
He left his servant there[.] }

[4] Elijah went a day’s journey into the desert,
until he came to a broom tree and sat beneath it.
He prayed for death saying:
“This is enough, O LORD!
Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”
[5] He lay down and fell asleep under the broom tree,
[CCC 332]but then an angel touched him and ordered him to get up and eat.
[6] Elijah looked and there at his head was a hearth cake
and a jug of water.
After he ate and drank, he lay down again,
[7] but the angel of the LORD came back a second time,
touched him, and ordered,
“Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!”
[8] He got up, ate, and drank;
then strengthened by that food,
he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb.

{ [9] There he came to a cave, where he took shelter.
But the word of the LORD came to him,
Why are you here, Elijah?
[10] He answered:
“I have been most zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts,
but the Israelites have forsaken your covenant,
torn down your altars, and put your prophets to the sword.
I alone am left, and they seek to take my life.”
[CCC 2583][11] Then the LORD said,
“Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD;
the LORD will be passing by.”

A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains
and crushing rocks before the LORD —
but the LORD was not in the wind.
After the wind there was an earthquake —
but the LORD was not in the earthquake.
[12] After the earthquake there was fire —
but the LORD was not in the fire.
After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.
[13] When he heard this,
Elijah hid his face in his cloak
and went and stood at the entrance of the cave. }
  • Fear and resignation in the midst of carrying out the will of God (vv. 3-6)
  • Miraculous provision from God (vv. 6-8)
  • The presence of God in quiet majesty (vv. 11-13)
Jezebel promises to take Elijah's life, and so he flees. During his journey, he gets tired and falls asleep under a broom tree. He is awakened by an angel, and he finds food and drink provided for him. He eats and drinks... but then goes back to sleep! The angel has to wake Elijah again and tell him to eat and drink and then go! The food is not "pity food" for Elijah during his depression, but is meant to energize him for the journey. At the end of his journey, Elijah has an encounter with the Lord on Mount Horeb (which is Mount Sinai).

Elijah was afraid and resigned during his journey... until the angel admonished him. Notice Elijah's demeanor in verse 4, where he asks God to take his life, for he was "no better than [his] fathers," and contrast that with his answer to God in verse 10. Elijah has been energized by the food and by the journey to Horeb.

Have you ever received spiritual nourishment from God, only to waste it? Have you ever had a spiritual encounter so powerful that you tried to recreate or hold on to the feeling rather than move forward with the energy of that encounter? Too often Christians fall into emotionalism, latching on to feelings rather than faith. Back in January, on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, as I was proclaiming the First Reading at Mass (from Acts 22), I began to weep at the ambo. By the last verse, my voice broke. To speak the words of Sts. Paul and Ananias touched my very core. I have no doubt that I had an intense spiritual encounter with God that morning. It manifested itself in feelings of humility and sorrow for my own sin, in tears.

I have never had that reaction while reading at Mass before, and have not had it since... and I'm okay with that. I do not try to recreate the scenario or recapture that feeling. Instead, I remember the effect the feeling had, I remember how it changed me, I remember the encounter. I pray I will never forget it. I do not need to be moved to tears in front of the congregation at Mass to remember the power of God in the life of St. Paul and in my own life. If I kept trying to be moved to tears while reading, instead of moving forward from this encounter, I would be like Elijah, eating and drinking and then going back to sleep. The angel told Elijah that the food was meant to give him strength for a journey, and that if he did not eat and drink and go soon, he would not have the energy to make it all the way to Horeb.

God gave me that encounter for a reason. Yes, it was a witness to the congregation. But it was also a special grace to me, and that grace was meant as strength for a journey. If I don't go forward in that grace, if I waste it just waiting for it to happen again, or trying to manufacture it again, I may not have the strength to go on further down the line.

There's a reason why Catholics (with rare exceptions) are only permitted to receive Holy Communion twice a day. Lay Catholics do not belong in the church, morning, noon, and night: lay Catholics have an apostolate in the world. (See Apostolicam Acuositatem from Vatican II.) When we receive Holy Communion (the miraculous spiritual food prefigured in the First Reading), it is meant to sustain us on our mission. We are dismissed at the end of Mass, sent out, sent forth. We should not be like sleepy Elijah, but like determined Elijah.

Second Reading: Ephesians 4:30 - 5:2
Last week, St. Paul continued comparing and contrasting the pre-Christ way of life and the post-Christ way of life. This week, we hear him continuing to exhort the Ephesians to live a genuinely Christian way of life, characterized by the absence of evil attitudes ("bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, ... reviling, [and] malice") and the exercise of true charity ("be kind [and] compassionate, forgiving one another").

I have included verses 3-8b of chapter 5, which are some the verses in between this Sunday's and next Sunday's Second Reading.

Brothers and sisters:

[Isa. 63:10][30] Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God,
[CCC 1274, 1296]with which you were sealed for the day of redemption.
[31] All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling
must be removed from you, along with all malice.
[32] And be kind to one another, compassionate,
[CCC 2842]forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.

[CCC 1694][5:1] So be imitators of God,
as beloved children, and live in love,
[CCC 616;[2] as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us
Ex. 29:18; Ezek. 20:41]as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.

{ [3] Immorality or any impurity or greed
must not even be mentioned among you,
as is fitting among holy ones,
[4] no obscenity or silly or suggestive talk,
which is out of place, but instead, thanksgiving.
[5] Be sure of this,
that no immoral or impure or greedy person, that is, an idolater,
has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.
[6] Let no one deceive you with empty arguments,
for because of these things the wrath of God
is coming upon the disobedient.
[7] So do not be associated with them.
[8] For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. }
  • Avoiding lack of charity (vv. 4:30-31, 5:3-5)
  • Showing the merciful love of God in Christ (vv. 4:32, 5:1-2)
  • Conversion from darkness to light (vv. 5:7-8)
This reading challenges us to face the hurtful and hateful attitudes that are so prevalent in our day and age. How often throughout the day do we, almost unknowingly, manifest "bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, ... reviling, [and] malice" to those around us? How about "immorality or ... impurity or greed" or "obscenity or silly or suggestive talk"? It's a shame we don't hear this sober reminder in the reading at Mass: "no immoral or impure or greedy person, that is, an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God." That should wake us up to our sins, especially those against charity.

Our model is nothing short of God Himself! "Be imitators of God," St. Paul says. "Live in love as Christ loved us." The commandment of "love your neighbor as yourself" is transformed by Christ into "love your neighbor as I have loved you". Our love for one another must be so great as to manifest itself as a sacrificial self-offering to God for the good of the other person. Where do we find the energy to love one another to such a degree? The Eucharist, the spiritual food which God gives to us for the journey.

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