19th Sunday in Ordinary time

It was supposed to be a glorious return and the triumph of the formerly rejected man. His accusations of the king had put his life in such danger that he’d had to hide in the wilderness and then in exile. His calls to reform had seemed to fall on deaf ears. He’d been blamed as the cause of drought and famine in the country. In all these situations he’d looked like a proper politician with a thick skin. Eventually he’d managed to gather many of his adversaries, the queen’s protégées, for a meeting and had proved them to be bogus in front of the public. As so often in the Near East, all of them were then slaughtered on the spot. It was supposed to be a glorious return and the triumph of the prophet Elijah.

But then something strange happened. The queen pledged bloody revenge on him – and all of a sudden Elijah lost his seemingly superhuman power. We can see him in today’s first reading, hidden in the desert, sitting under a bush and wishing himself dead. His prayer reveals how devastated he is: ‘Lord, I’ve had enough. Take my life, I’m no better than my ancestors.’ This part of Elijah’s story is my favourite one, because it shows the human, imperfect and weak side of an apparently spotless and powerful figure. In the Bible the great individuals often seem to be portrayed as great champions, challenging adversity with unshaken faith and superhuman abilities. The same happens with the lives of the saints. Somehow these great examples of faith don’t appeal to us ordinary people, battling against our own doubts, weaknesses, anxieties and fallibilities. Far more often these words of Elijah: ‘Lord, I’ve had enough’ describe our own misery, frustration and helplessness.

Elijah, powerless and frustrated, goes to sleep. This is his way of dealing with the unbearable and apparently insoluble situation. I know people who do the same. Others try to ease the pain of their own existence in different, sometimes irreversibly destructive, ways. Some others put on the armour of cynicism or aggression or meekness. But deep underneath – maybe with the exception of psychopaths – is a beating heart and tender soul. Recently we’ve had a chance to see a whole range of emotions revealed by modern superheroes: from Andy Murray’s tears after losing in the final at Wimbledon, to those of many others at the Olympics. Perhaps it’s been so engaging because it reflects our own everyday struggle against the odds, with rare moments of triumph and much more common moments of failure.

The most moving aspect of Elijah’s story is his absolute honesty with God. He had to be strong, fearless and powerful in the public eye in order to accomplish his mission. But before God he can be weak, helpless, embittered and frustrated. He doesn’t have to put on an act, to pretend to be anything other than his real self. Actually, putting on an act before God would be utterly pointless as God knows us better than we do. It is a fabulously liberating thought that I can stand before God in my true state and be absolutely certain that I’m not judged or condemned, but loved by him with great compassion and understanding. He doesn’t fob me off with a pat on the back when I need consolation. He doesn’t remove all the problems, obstacles, diversities. He offers me the strength to live the life which is greater than all of them. Forget your well memorised prayers, deeply rooted in your brain, but expressing little of your real life. Let yourself be genuine before God – and then accept his gift: ‘get up and eat, or the journey will be too long for you.’