Sunday's first reading (1 Kgs 19: 4-9) helps us understand why these writings are contained in a Bible instead of a catechism. The multiple literary forms of Scripture convey experiences of faith which the single literary form of a catechism could never approach.

But we have a problem trying to discover the faith experience of the author; we're only given the middle part of this particular Elijah narrative for our liturgical selection.

In the first part, the author describes the prophet's famous "duel" with the prophets of Ba'al on Mt. Carmel, a confrontation which results in the pagan prophets' execution. Queen Jezebel, who paid the doomed men's salaries, isn't amused by their demise. She quickly sends word to Elijah, "May the gods do thus and so to me if by this time tomorrow I have not done to your life what was done to each of them!"

Fugitive

Elijah immediately does what anyone would do in the face of such a threat: He runs. That's where the reading begins. He goes from Mt. Carmel (in Israel's far north) to Beersheba (in the far south). Like many who face impossible situations, he begs to die. His death wish only changes after a messenger from Yahweh appears and twice gives him food and drink. The prophet then continues south into the Sinai for 40 more days until he reaches Horeb (Mt. Sinai). At this point, the liturgical passage ends.

But the actual narrative continues. When Elijah (the only biblical Jew who ever returns to Mt. Sinai) arrives at the mountain, Yahweh asks a strange question: "Elijah, why are you here?"

God immediately brushes aside the prophet's reason and commands him to go up to Damascus and begin the process of getting rid of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel.

If you have a map of the Middle East, track Elijah's flight from Mt. Carmel to Mt. Sinai, then his trek from Mt. Sinai to Damascus. Why didn't Yahweh tell him to go to Damascus directly from Mt. Carmel? It would have saved months of walking in the wrong direction, a direction Yahweh helped the prophet travel by giving him food and drink along the way!

Ever wake up one morning and realize God has been helping you go in a direction God doesn't want you to go? The mistake is understandable if we went in that direction without God's help, but it's completely another experience to have had God's help. To say the least, it creates a tension of faith.

Which way?

This insight gives new meaning to Jesus' words in the Gospel (Jn 6: 41-51): "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him, and I will raise him up on the last day."

Our sacred authors know from their own experience that Jesus' road to eternal life isn't marked as clearly as they'd expect or like it to be marked. We, along with them, aren't always certain in what direction we should be going. Because we're working out our salvation in this world, uncertainty is a part of all we do.

Yet Paul is convinced we're to be involved in this world until eternity begins (Eph 4: 30-52). That's why, in the midst of our uncertainty, we're to hone our relationships with others, always knowing that we're "sealed for the day of redemption," the day on which our way will become perfectly clear. Often, in the circumstances in which we live, the only thing we know we're doing right is being "king to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven (us) in Christ."

In a sense, Elijah and Paul's experiences teach us that the most important thing in our lives isn't always to be certain that we're going in the right direction, as much as it is to do the right thing in our relationship with others, no matter what direction we're traveling.

(08-10-00)