CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online) - The first reading of the Liturgy for the Western Church on the 19th Sunday of the Year, Year B, is drawn from the longer account of the Prophet Elijah: “Elijah went a day’s journey into the desert, until he came to a broom tree and sat beneath it. He prayed for death saying: “This is enough, O LORD! Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” He lay down and fell asleep under the broom tree, but then an angel touched him and ordered him to get up and eat. Elijah looked and there at his head was a hearth cake and a jug of water. After he ate and drank, he lay down again, but the angel of the LORD came back a second time, touched him, and ordered, “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!” He got up, ate, and drank; then strengthened by that food; he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb.” (1 Kgs. 19:4-8)
In the 18th chapter Elijah had just confronted the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. He was seeking rest. As our passage begins, he had just learned of the threat upon his life from Jezebel. So, after that confrontation with the false prophets of Baal, we find this mighty man of God so distraught that he prays for death. This moment of complete fatigue becomes an invitation to deeper faith. Retreating to a desert to die, under a broom tree, he encounters the Lord, who visits him through a messenger. That is what the word “Angel” means. His surrender to the voice of God, though reluctant at first, shows us a pattern. It reveals how to hear the voice of God in those difficult times in our own lives. Like Elijah, when we reach the end of ourselves, we often find the beginning of authentic faith when we surrender to the Lord.
I seem to be spending more time under the broom tree as I get older. I have finally come to see that place as a holy place, a place of invitation, in an unfolding loving plan of God in my own life. It is under those “broom trees”, when I feel the least able to continue the struggle and surrender myself to the One who always sends His messengers, that I find the sustenance I need for the journey of life and learn the ways of living faith.
Many people have heard of the dramatic encounter between the great Old Testament prophet Elijah and the prophets of Baal that occurred on Mount Carmel just prior to this account. It is recorded in the eighteenth chapter of the Old Testament's Book of First Kings. The powerful prophet confronts hundreds who oppose him in a test of “derring do”. Each builds an altar and calls upon his god to send fire to consume it. Elijah is the only one whose prayer is answered as the Altar and sacrifice are consumed by Fire.
However, most people are not familiar with the story that follows in this chapter of the Biblical text. This same mighty prophet runs for cover—seeking refuge in a desert under a broom tree, begging God to take his life—when confronted by a wicked queen named Jezebel who has heard the news of the encounter from Ahab. But, it is right here, under the broom tree, where we can learn what may be the more important lesson for the journey of life. That is because it is there, under the broom tree, where most of us truly live. It is there where we also have the hardest time surrendering our wills to the Will of God.
Let me be clear, I believe in the Biblical account and marvel at the courage of Elijah and the power of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to confound the false prophets of Baal. However, it is this same God who chooses to meet and dialogue with Elijah under that broom tree after that dramatic event. And it is this same Elijah who—even after the Carmel experience—runs into the desert, prays for death, and collapses in exhaustion under the broom tree. How very human… how very encouraging… how very real.
The early Christians referred to death as falling asleep. It was the point of complete surrender into the loving arms of a loving God. In this experience of his weakness Elijah encounters the Lord in a different way. I propose that this encounter reveals the heart of Christian prayer, a call to surrendered love. There, under the broom tree, he is fed a hearth cake and water, a Eucharistic symbol. “He got up, ate and drank; then strengthened by that food; he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb.” (1 Kings 19:8) There he is prepared to hear the voice of God as He passed by, not in a mighty wind, an earthquake, or a fire — but in a gentle whisper — the kind that can only be heard by one who has a surrendered ear to hear. Humble — not haughty.
“Then the LORD said, "Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will be passing by." A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the LORD--but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake--but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was fire--but the LORD was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave. A voice said to him, "Elijah, why are you here?" (1 Kings 19:11 - 13)
Millennia later, God would come as a Man. He would speak on three mountains. On the first, He would give the new law through which His followers would call down the fire of love to consume the world through living their lives of poured-out-love after his Ascension. On the second, which we heard proclaimed this past Thursday in the great Feast of the Transfiguration, He would be transfigured before their eyes in the presence of Elijah and Moses, fulfilling both the law and the prophets and showing them the future glory for all who walked in His way. And on the third, He would speak again in a whisper - "It is finished" - and give himself up in complete surrender to redeem the world that had rejected His love.
There is mystery here deep and profound—yet, as simple as the lesson learned under the broom tree by Elijah. God is searching for men and women who will surrender their lives in love to Him. Often, it takes the depletion of all of our own efforts and resources before we are willing to give up - and give in - to Him. But when we do — the life of true faith begins. It is there, we learn to hear the God of surrendered love in the whisper of the wind. It is there that we are learning to live under the broom tree