Ordinary Time 19, Year A
- Let not the oppressed turn back in shame; may the poor and needy praise your name (Ps. 74:21)
One would think that with his winning the decisive confrontation on Mount Carmel that was agreed upon by the people, the prophet Elijah would see the end of his trials and tribulations. He succeeded not only in getting the people to proclaim, “The Lord alone is God! The Lord alone is God!” but also in eliciting their help in the capture and slaughter of the 450 priests of Baal.
Yet it appears that neither the miraculous consumption by an intense fire of the offering made by Elijah nor the end of the drought prophesied by him had much effect on either the king or on his subjects. All that Ahab did was to tell his wife Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and she subsequently vowed to make the prophet’s life even more difficult. As for the people, repeatedly terrorized perhaps by the powerful, Elijah could not even hide among them, so that he had to flee to the desert alone.
Terribly distraught while fleeing for his life, Elijah wished for death. He later found himself at Mount Horeb, in a cave where he took shelter and where God twice asked the question, “Why are you here, Elijah?” And twice the embittered prophet, seemingly renouncing his calling, gave vent to his feeling of aloneness and helplessness.
He was not alone, of course, for there was Obadiah and there were those 7,000 Israelites, too, who had not knelt to Baal or kissed him (1 Kgs. 18:12-13; 19:18). More importantly, Elijah was not helpless, since there was the Lord God, manifesting himself enigmatically this time not by way of wind, earthquake or fire (cf. Ex. 19:16-19), but by way of what was preceded by these traditional elements of divine theophany, namely, a tiny whispering sound.
Like the prophet Elijah, St. Vincent de Paul too recognizes that God is often in “small beginnings” rather than in “projects that begin with the ringing of bells” (cf. ). He points out, “The affairs of God are accomplished by little and by little, and as it were imperceptibly. The Spirit operates without commotion or violence” (cf. the entry for Monday, August 11, in the web site of the U.S. Midwest Province of the C.M. ). It seems that in St. Vincent's mind it is only after the rending, jolting and all-consuming power of emotion and enthusiasm has passed and died down that Vincentians can perhaps pay a “prayerful and calm attentiveness” to the tiny whispering sound of so many others like themselves consisting of “the most abandoned of the sick, the most abandoned of the uneducated poor, the most abandoned of the galley slaves, the most abandoned of the aged, the most abandoned of the mentally ill, the most abandoned of the orphaned, the homeless and the hungry,” in order to discover God’s manifestation of his presence and be awed by it, and be confirmed in the God-given mission of solidarity with the poor which Vincentians cannot renounce without being untrue to themselves.
Vincentians may falter in their faith as they take their eyes off Jesus and focus instead on themselves, overwhelmed by the enormity of urgent needs around them and overcome with fear of so many life-threatening obstacles surrounding them. But if they genuinely know their helplessness and cry out for help, the Lord of nature and history will surely come to their rescue and turn their failures into success, assuring them, “it is I,” stretching out his hand to catch them. When they are weak, that is when they are strong (2 Cor. 12:10). Or, as St. Alberto Hurtado, S.J., puts it (“El éxito de los fracasos,” Un fuego que enciende otros fuegos [Santiago, Chile: Centro de Estudios y Documentación «Padre Hurtado» de La Universidad Católica de Chile, 2005]):
- The greater apostles are not those that are on the front page;
- nor the better successes those of greater appearance.
- In Christian action, there is the success of failures!
- The late triumphs! In the world of the invisible,
- what in appearance is of no worth is what is worthwhile.
- A complete failure, willingly accepted, is a supernatural success
- greater than all triumphs.
And an integral part of such success in failures, adds St. Alberto, is not being content of with one’s own salvation only—or, in St. Vincent’s words, not finding it enough to love God if our neighbor does not love him. For as taught by the apostle Paul’s readiness and willingness to be accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of his own people, those who are focused on Jesus and are one with their poor and needy brothers and sisters must be ready and willing to follow Jesus all the way, to the point of dying for those who sin and fail and of becoming a curse to redeem those under a curse (cf. Rom. 5:7-9; Gal. 3:13).
To partake of Jesus, who gave his body up and shed his blood for all so that sins might be forgiven, spells, it appears, continuing trials and tribulations.