We are living in challenging times. Institutions, religious values and cultural practices and traditions are called into question. The institution of marriage and family is being redefined. Divorce and remarriage is accepted as not contrary to the gospel. Abortion, euthanasia and stem cells research involving embryos are accepted forms of killing or destruction of life. Surrogate motherhood and test-tube babies on the other hand are promoted to help couples to have children. Among the Christian communions and within the Catholic Communion, the values of the gospel are compromised to fit the needs of the modern world. Instead of humanity trying to be faithful to the values taught by Christ, we are attempting to manipulate the gospel to suit our needs.
Like Elijah, more than ever, we are called to preserve the purity of the gospel. This was the context of today’s first reading. The prophet Elijah was known to be a zealous prophet in keeping the faith of Israel uncontaminated. He was a true prophet and servant of God in defending the true God of Israel. Just earlier on, he confronted King Ahab and the false prophets. He even went to the extent of killing the false prophets in obedience to Moses’ command as death sentence was imposed on those who apostatized. Indeed, Elijah demonstrated his utter devotion and loyalty to God. It showed his deep concern and protective love for his fellow Israelites who were being led astray by the false prophets.
What principal weapons did he use to purify the nation of Israel? What can we learn from Elijah? How do we preserve the purity of our faith and the health of society?
Firstly, Elijah did not use weapons or force but the power of faith in God. The secret of his courage in confronting the King and exposing the false prophets at Mount Carmel was his faith in God. He had total confidence in Yahweh whom he believed would vindicate him. True enough, the Lord allowed a severe drought in Israel at the command of Elijah. And, unlike the false prophets who could not command their gods to consume their sacrifices, the Lord had the holocaust burn at Elijah’s command, even though it was deliberately drenched with water. Finally, Elijah prayed for the rain to come and it became a storm.
Secondly, from Elijah, we learn that this faith in God must be expressed by fervent and persistent prayer. His confidence in God’s power and fidelity was seen in the brevity and simplicity of his prayer. He did not utter long and complicated prayers. Elijah believed and his prayer was heard. He never doubted the fidelity of God to his prayers. His prayer was not only, fervent but it was also persistent. “Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel and bowed down to the earth, putting his face between his knees.” Elijah persevered in prayer, a prayer that was complete and total, symbolized by the seven times before the prayer was answered. Even though Elijah received his prophetic word that God would send the rain, he persevered in prayer until the rains came. (1 Kg 18:41-45) If we want our prayers to be heard, we, too, should not give up too easily. We must pray till it is given, search until we find and knock till the door is open. (cf Mk 7:7)
Fourthly, he prayed with expectant faith that God would manifest His power. Indeed, God manifested His power in response to his sincere prayer. He sent fire to consume the sacrifice thereby showing Himself to be a living God and vindicating him as God’s prophet. Through his persistent prayer, the rains came, symbolizing the renewed blessings of God for the nation. We need to pray for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit and a spiritual renewal in the Church. This is what the New Evangelization is inviting us to. We should pray also for a God-encounter so that we too will know that our God is a living God who is not only to be believed but one who acts in our lives. Without an experience of His love in our lives and His mighty power, the world which believes only in science and technology, in empirical and experimental sciences, would not come to have faith in our God.
However, it is not enough to pray rightly. The way and attitude in prayer is no less important than the motives and the life of the pray-er. Elijah did not pray for himself. He interceded for the people of Israel because of his sincere desire to reveal God’s grace to them so that they would repent and turn their hearts back to God. He asked for God’s grace to deal with the false prophets and Baalism and Asherah, the pagan gods. He was not seeking for his glory and honour but the restoration of God’s hour and glory. Indeed, this is what the Lord asks of us when He taught us the Lord’s Prayer, to pray thus, “Holy be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done!”
Besides having the right motives, we need to live a holy and righteous life. St James reminds us that the prayer of the righteous man works wonders. After saying, “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed”, he added, “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.” (James 5:16f) It is important that we keep ourselves pure and holy if we were to be effective in the lives of others. Righteousness comes from faith in Christ who justifies us. But it also means that having been justified and reconciled with the Lord, we need to continue living a righteous, holy and God-fearing life in obedience to His commandments. The psalmist underscores this necessity for a righteous life in prayer when he says, “Lord who shall be admitted to your tent and dwell on your holy mountain? He who walks without fault. He who acts with justice and speaks the truth from his heart.”
Without putting on the mind of Christ, we will not be able to always ask according to His holy will. And the Lord will give us what we ask provided we ask with the mind of Christ. This is an indispensable condition if we want to receive what we ask. St John wrote, “Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.” (1 Jn 3:21f)
Hence, to pray according to His perfect will as the Lord asks of us in the Lord’s Prayer and as He did in the garden of Gethsemane, we must pray that we are not in the will or in the way of God because of our self-centered motives. Like Elijah, we need to give our undivided attention to the Lord. Just as he challenged the people earlier on to make a definitive choice between worshipping Baal or Yahweh, we too must with undivided heart render complete devotion to God. Elijah, regardless of how he was taunted and ridiculed by the prophets of Baal and threatened by King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, he remained committed to the Lord to purify Israel from corruption and false compromises. We, too, if we want our prayers to be heard must have undivided loyalty to God.
Within this context of prayer and the faith of Elijah and his spiritual warfare against the false prophets at Mount Carmel, we can now better appreciate why our Carmelite sisters are doing what they are doing. Following the tradition of the spirituality of Elijah, they too seek to live a life of purity through penance and mortification in the monastery. Through their sacrifices and self-denial, they unite themselves with the sufferings of Jesus on the cross so that they can do the will of God. At the same time, this house is known as a house of prayer and, especially, a house for intercession. The primary task of the sisters is to offer their whole life, not just at prayer but in their whole being, for the conversion of sinners and the petitions of the local church and the universal church and the world. Their prayers, like Elijah’s, are effective because they are prayed with a purity of heart, with fervor, sincerity, persistence and most of all, with faith. Indeed, we have much to thank our sisters for being our great intercessors. We know that their prayers are effective because of their holiness of life and their faith.
Finally, we also take inspiration from Mary, our Lady of Mount Carmel in seeking to follow the spirituality of the Carmelite sisters. The response in the responsorial psalm says, “Draw us after you, Virgin Mary; we shall follow in your footsteps.” Indeed, let us follow Mary’s footsteps in doing the will of God and glorifying Him in our lives in obedience to His will. She reminds us at Cana in Galilee, to do whatever He tells us if we want our prayers to be answered. So through Mary, let us live out our sonship in Christ by living our lives not as slaves to the Law or to sin but truly as adopted sons and daughters in Christ, sharing in His life. In this way, our prayers would be heard for we pray not just with the confidence as sons and daughters of God but with the same mind of Christ
Written by The Most Rev William Goh
Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore
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