In the first reading at Mass today (Wednesday of Week 10), we have recounted for us one of the great prophetic actions of all time. It takes place at Mt. Carmel on the beautiful slopes overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
Elijah Calls the Question – Grieved and angry that his own people had largely abandoned the Lord God, and gone over to the worship of god Baal (the god of the cruel and oppressive Queen Jezebel), Elijah called the question:
How long will you straddle between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him! (1 Kings 18:21)
Then Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal, the Canaanite god, to a kind of prophetic duel. Both he and they would prepare sacrifices and see whose deity would respond. After many hours of calling on their god to no avail, and even being taunted by Elijah, the prophets of Baal were told to stand aside and watch a real God go to work. And Elijah prayed, and God sent fire from on high to consume the sacrifice:
When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The LORD–he is God! The LORD–he is God!” (1 Kings 18:39).
The passage ends darkly: Then Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.” So they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there. (1 Kings 18:40)
As you may have guessed, none of this pleased the wicked Queen Jezebel much, and she announced that Elijah must die. Elijah fled into the desert and there began to despair.
And here is where it may be of some benefit to stop a moment and ponder a possible inner struggle of Elijah, one that we all likely share from time to time. For it is too easy in times like these to fear that all are falling away, that all is lost, and that there is little hope for recovery. And even recalling the promise of the Lord that hell would not prevail over the Church (Matt. 16:18), yet still, many remembering the days of full churches and schools, seeing the increasing emptiness may wonder, “Whither the Church?”
Did Elijah struggle in this way? It would seem so. For, even as he boldly challenged the prophets of Baal he said,
I am the only surviving prophet of the LORD, and there are four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal. (1 Kings 18:22).
Whether this was literally true is dubious, as we shall see later. Yet it is Elijah’s sense that he is all but alone and that the whole of the people and even the religious leaders have all defected.
As he flees his despair deepens:
Elijah was afraid and ran for his life…. He went a day’s journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep…..All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was a cake of bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.”
So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night…..
And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” (1 Kings 19:3-12 varia)
Thus we see Elijah’s despair and his sense of being all alone. And some among the faithful today struggle also with this to one degree or another.
But note how God answers Elijah.
Yet I have seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him. (1 Kings 19:19)
In other words, you are far from alone Elijah. I have seven thousand like you though your despairing eyes see them not!
God then says,
“Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu..” (1 Kings 19:15-18
In other words, find these seven thousand and go rebuild my people, go rebuild my Church. Now is not a time for despair, now is a time for action. Gather them, appoint leaders and I will be with you to win this battle and reestablish the faith in glory.
In speaking this way to Elijah, the Lord also speaks to us. Though all seem in decline, and losses mount, Yet God still has “seven thousand” who have not bent the knee to Baal of this present evil age, who have not departed. And from this faithful remnant he expects us to draw hope and continue our work.
Most of you who read my blog regularly know that I have often chronicled the decline in numbers and, like most, insistent on the need to evangelize. There is indeed much to be sober about when glancing at the downward trend in Mass attendance, the closing of parishes and schools and the weak faith evidenced in our culture.
But to be sober is not to be in despair. For God has accomplished revivals before, and he can and will do so again. There are any number of famous figures who pronounced the end and doom of the Church. Yet where is Caesar now, where is Napoleon, where is the Soviet Socialist Republic? And when the latest neo-gnostic, rationalist, materialist, and atheist movements of the post Cartesian West have run their course, the Church will still remain, and still be speaking of Jesus. It is for us to stay the course and for God to win through to the end.
There have been times when the “practicing” Church got very small. On Good Friday all but five had fled: Mary of Magdala, Mary Clopas, Mary Solome, Mary, Mother of Jesus and John. And there they were with Jesus. They even added a sixth that day, the repentant thief. Small, and things looked pretty grim, but still the Church at worship, looking to Christ her head.
Yes, like Elijah we can sometimes think there is little hope, that we are all but alone. But it was not so for him, and it is not so for us. God always has his “seven thousand.”
Image Credit: McNichols Icons