By Father James Rodriguez
LAST WEEK, WE spent time atop the mountain with Jesus and His closest disciples, Peter, James, and John. Moses and Elijah appeared beside the Lord, rendering Him the full testimony of the law and the prophets. Like living signposts, they directed our attention to Him as the fulfillment of the entire Old Testament. With the Apostles, we watched and shared in Peter’s excitement: “It is good that we are here! “(Matthew 17:4).
It is indeed good to be on the mountain with God, and today’s first reading brings us back to this place where heaven meets earth. In this case, Elijah hides in a cave, having been invited there by God in the verses that precede today’s first reading. Elijah had just faced hundreds of pagan prophets sent by the wicked queen Jezebel, and emerged victorious for the Lord. His triumph was short-lived however, since the queen was quite powerful and now, quite angry.
A Man Afraid
Elijah’s victory and fear seem, at first, to be incongruous. After all, God had just manifested His power in a sensational and public way, proving not only to be the one true God, but also the one who had favored Elijah. Yet here we meet a man afraid.
If we’re being honest, we cannot judge him, since the same God has intervened in our lives many times as well, perhaps not so extravagantly, and yet our old fears and insecurities so often return. Elijah runs and hides – as we have done since Adam and Eve – and even in his fear, God pursues and provides. Afraid though he was, Elijah was never abandoned, and came to understand what we so often forget: God is with us.
In the still, small voice he heard in that mountain cave, Elijah felt the presence of the living God, whom no one could see and live. He knew well that God was far beyond human comprehension and apprehension, and that attempting to understand God was tantamount to idolatry.
Only Moses was privileged with seeing God face-to-face on a mountaintop, but here was Elijah, not yet on top and very much afraid. The earthquake, the fire and wind all shook him, but they were also curing him of his fear of Jezebel and replacing it with the fear he needed: the holy fear of God.
Even as I write these words, it strikes me as a strange juxtaposition: God’s presence is simultaneously reassuring and frightening. Yet, it is true and healthy to meditate upon this reality, because it points to a fundamental truth of love: it is a decision.
When a man and woman marry, they promise to forego all other lovers and loves. For them, there is only the other. This love is so deep and unfathomable that it results in a miracle, which over the course of nine months develops in its mother’s womb.
The marriage covenant requires the consent of both husband and wife to fidelity, not only in the joys of life, but also in the moments when it is hard to remember the love that bound them in the first place. It appears to have lost the fire and storminess, the sweet earthquake that happens in every heart in love, yet in the stillness of day-to-day married life, that same love is there, for it is nothing less than the God Who in blessing the marriage promised to be there forever.
Our fear then, in facing this dramatic divine love story, is one that keeps us aware of the stakes, for marriage involves two people entrusting their hearts and futures to each other for life. The scandal of how “normal” marital infidelity and divorce have become is one of the great tragedies of our time, because it points to a loss of the holy fear of breaking a promise made to God and a person made in His image.
St. Paul speaks of this decision to love in today’s second reading, using very shocking language to describe his love: “…I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people…” (Romans 9:3). He was willing to go to such absolute lengths for his beloved, just as a man who loves his wife in imitation of Christ, who loved the Church and gave Himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25).
How often we are like Peter, whose faith faltered on the stormy waters. Like Elijah, he was near God and afraid, so close and yet, so far. Despite both men’s limited trust, our Father’s love was too great to leave them to flounder. They reached out, and He met them halfway, like a mountaintop, where heaven and earth touch. May we abandon our fear and trust in Him.
Readings for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Kings 19: 9A, 11-13A
Psalm 85: 9, 10, 11-12, 13-14
Romans 9: 1-5
Father Rodriguez ministers full-time with Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens, and lives in residence at Blessed Sacrament parish in Jackson Heights.