For the past few weeks the Old Testament readings at Mass on Sunday from the Book of Exodus have focused on the journey the whole Israelite community made through the desert after being freed by God from enslavement in Egypt. Today, the Old Testament reading at Mass from the Book of Kings recalls the journey of one man, the Prophet Elijah, who fled from the wicked King Ahab and his notorious wife Jezebel.
The Book of Exodus reminds us that God is with us as a people making our way to the Kingdom. The Book of Kings, as it tells the story of Elijah, reminds us that God’s with us individually as we make our personal journey through life.
Elijah is one of the greatest and most powerful of the prophets. He raises people from the dead and brings fire down from heaven on his enemies. He causes the rain to stop in punishment for unbelief. At the time of Jesus people wondered if Jesus weren’t Elijah appearing again. When Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, Moses and Elijah, two great figures from the Old Testament, appear at his side.
Yet, Elijah leaves no writings, as most of the prophets do, which means we know him mainly from the life he leads.
According to the Book of Kings, Elijah spends most of his life fleeing from Ahab and his wife Jezebel, his mortal enemies. They follow him from water hole to water hole as he flees south from northern Israel. He has to hide in mountain caves and isolated wadis in the desert, with scarcely enough to eat. Elijah may be a powerful prophet, but most of time he’s a prophet on the run.
It’s a difficult, humbling flight. A popular icon of Elijah pictures him hand to his head, wondering if he will make it, as a raven hovers behind him bringing bread for the day. He’s living through a desperate drought; the king and his all his followers are after him. He scrounges for food, even relying on a poor widow with almost nothing of her own. He wishes God would end it all.
The powerful prophet is helpless. He’s living through a drought that God alone can lift. He needs food that God alone can give. He has to wait for God alone to act.
Yet Elijah learns from this experience. It trains him to see. From experience, the prophet learns to see what others may not see, and so he sees God’s redeeming presence in the far-off tiny cloud that promises rain and the whisper of a wind that says God is here, or in a poor widow whom most would say is useless.
In Jesus’ time, people were hoping for a Messiah. Elijah was one type of Messiah some hoped for. He’s closest to the kind of Messiah Jesus was.
Isn’t that true? Isn’t Elijah on the run like Jesus in the mystery of his Incarnation and Passion? “He humbled himself, taking on the form of a slave.” That humbling led to death on a cross. He ended his life a rejected, helpless prophet, yet God raised him up in power.
Elijah invites us to learn from the journey we make, particularly from our experiences of weakness and death. We learn to see through the mystery of the cross. We gain the greatest wisdom through this mystery. What wisdom is better than the wisdom that sees God’s power in a tiny cloud, the slight whisper of a breeze, the helplessness of the poor? That’s a wisdom our times can use.