Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Prayer of Elijah

On 26th August 1846 an audience of two thousand packed into Birmingham Town Hall for the first performance of Mendelssohn`s oratorio Elijah. It was conducted by the composer himself. It was an unprecedented success. No less than four choruses and four arias were encored, and the applause evidently bordered on the hysterical.

The second performance was attended by Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert.

It was Mendelssohn`s last major triumph. He died on 4th November 1847.

However Elijah established itself as second only to Handel`s Messiah in popular affection

Here is the rendition of the prayer of Elijah, "Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel", one of the most famous prayers in the Old Testament.

It is in German with Friedrich Schorr singing "Herr Gott Abrahams" with the London Symphony Orchestra and John Barbirolli, conductor in London on 11 May 1931.

"Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, this day let it be known that Thou art God, and that I am Thy servant!

Lord God of Abraham! Oh shew to all this people that I have done these things according to Thy word.

Oh hear me, Lord, and answer me! Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, oh hear me and answer me, and shew this people that Thou art Lord God.

And let their hearts again be turned"

It is a model prayer, remarkable for its clarity, its simplicity and its utmost candour. It is noted for its brevity and its faith

It is this prayer which was the subject of Pope Benedict`s catechesis on Elijah and Prayer on Wednesday last (15th June 2011)

Philipps van Galle
Elia wedijvert met de profeten van Baäl
Elijah competes with the Prophets of Baal
1575 -1600
Print engraving
207 mm x 285 mm
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Lucas Cranach the Younger
Elijah and the Priests of Baal 1545
Oil on wood
1.275 x 2.42 m
Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

The scene

The setting is Mount Carmel. Sometime in the 9th century BC. It is the height of a drought and famine. Three years previously God had announced through Elijah that he was punishing King Ahab and the people by sending a drought. No rain had fallen since then. Ahab goaded on by his wife Jezebel had introduced the worship of Baal into the nation. The drought was punishment for idolatry.

The punishment only made Ahab and his Queen more resolute in their determination to persevere with the new worship. The old dispensation and its priests (as well as Elijah) had been hunted down and killed. The survivors along with Elijah had to go underground.

Three years on God calls on Elijah to lead the final confrontation with Baal and the worshippers of Baal.

The Pope said:

"We are in the Northern Kingdom, in the 9th century B.C., at the time of King Ahab, in a moment when, in Israel, a situation of open syncretism had developed. In addition to the Lord, the people also adored Baal, the reassuring idol from which they believed came the gift of rain, and to whom they therefore attributed the power of giving fruitfulness to the fields and life to men and livestock alike.

Although they claimed to follow the Lord, the invisible and mysterious God, the people also sought security in a comprehensible and predictable god, from which they thought they could obtain fecundity and prosperity in exchange for sacrifice. Israel was yielding to the seduction of idolatry -- a continual temptation for the believer -- by fooling itself into thinking it could "serve two masters" (cf. Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13) and ease the impenetrable ways of faith in the Almighty by also placing its trust in a powerless god fashioned by man.

It is precisely in order to unmask the deceptive foolishness of such an attitude that Elijah has the people of Israel gather on Mount Carmel and puts before them the necessity of making a choice:

"If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him" (1 Kings 18:21

And the prophet, the bearer of God's love, does not leave his people alone before this choice, but helps them by pointing out [to them] the sign that will reveal the truth: Both he and the prophets of Baal will prepare a sacrifice and will pray, and the true God will reveal himself by responding with the fire that will consume the offering.

Thus begins the confrontation between the Prophet Elijah and the followers of Baal, which in reality is between the Lord of Israel, the God of salvation and of life, and a mute and empty idol that can do nothing, neither good nor evil (cf. Jeremiah 10:5).

There also begins the confrontation between two completely different ways of turning to God and ways of prayer."

The contest

Print made by Philips Galle
After Maarten van Heemskerck
The story of Elijah and the priests of Baal
Engraving print
205 millimetres x 250 millimetres
The British Museum, London
(The priests calling the name of Baal; priests dance around a pyre with a dismembered bull; Elijah and Ahab look on at left; after Heemskerck. 1567)

Mendelssohn's Elijah No. 10 "As God the Lord of Sabaoth"

Mendelssohn's Elijah No. 11 "Baal, we cry to thee."

Mendelssohn's Elijah No. 12 & 13 "Call him louder!"

"25 Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.” 26 So they took the bull given them and prepared it.

Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.

27 At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” 28 So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. 29 Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.

30 Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come here to me.” They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the LORD, which had been torn down. 31 Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD had come, saying, “Your name shall be Israel.” 32 With the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs[a] of seed. 33 He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, “Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.”

34 “Do it again,” he said, and they did it again.

“Do it a third time,” he ordered, and they did it the third time. 35 The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench.

36 At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed."(1 Kings 18: 25 - 36)

The Pope said:

"The prophets of Baal in fact cry aloud, stir themselves up, dance limping about, and enter into a state of excitement that culminates in them cutting their own bodies "with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them" (1 Kings 18:28).

They turn to themselves in order to approach their god, relying on their own abilities to bring about a response. The idol's deceptive reality is thus revealed: Man thinks of it as something that can be regulated, [something] that can be managed with one's own strength, that can be accessed on the basis of oneself and one's own vital forces.

The adoration of an idol, instead of opening the human heart to the Other, and to a freeing relationship that allows one to leave egoism's narrow confines in order to enter the dimensions of love and reciprocal gift, closes the human person up within the exclusive and desperate circle of self seeking.

And the deception is such that, in adoring the idol, man finds himself forced to resort to extreme acts in the illusory attempt to subject it to his own will.

For this reason, the prophets of Baal reach the point of even doing themselves harm, of inflicting themselves with wounds, in a dramatically ironic gesture: In order to get a response, some sign of life from their god, they cover themselves in blood, thereby symbolically covering themselves in death.

Elijah's attitude to prayer is quite other. He asks the people to come near, thereby involving them in his action and in his petition.

The goal of the challenge he posed to the prophets of Baal was to bring back to God the people who had gone astray by following idols; he therefore wants Israel to unite itself to him, and to thereby become a participant and protagonist in his prayer and in all that is happening.

Then the prophet erects an altar, making use of -- as the text says --"twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, 'Israel shall be your name'" (verse 31).

These stones represent all Israel and are the tangible memorial of its history of election, of predilection and of salvation of which the people were the object.

Elijah's liturgical action has a decisive impact: The altar is the sacred place that indicates the Lord's presence, but the stones that form it represent the people, who now, through the prophet's mediation, are symbolically placed before God, becoming an "altar," the place of offering and of sacrifice.

But it is necessary that the symbol become a reality, that Israel acknowledge the true God and rediscover its own identity as the Lord's own people.

For this reason, Elijah asks the Lord to reveal Himself, and the twelve stones intended to remind Israel of its own truth also serve to remind the Lord of His fidelity, which the prophet appeals to in prayer."

Attributed to J. A. Marienhof (Dutch painter, active ca.1640-1649)
The Sacrifice of Elijah
Oil on canvas
46.5 x 60.5 cm
The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, Co. Durham

Albert Joseph Moore (1841-1893)
Elijah's Sacrifice (1863; exh. RA 1865)
Oil on canvas
Bury Art Gallery & Museum, Bury, Lancashire

Albert Moore 1841-1893
Studies for `Elijah's Sacrifice' circa 1864
Drawing on paper
support: 210 x 254 mm
Tate Britain, London

Albert Moore 1841-189
Study for `Elijah's Sacrifice' circa 1864
Watercolour on paper
support: 286 x 216 mm
Tate Britain, London

The Prayer of Elijah

Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, this day let it be known that Thou art God, and that I am Thy servant! Lord God of Abraham! Oh shew to all this people that I have done these things according to Thy word. Oh hear me, Lord, and answer me! Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, oh hear me and answer me, and shew this people that Thou art Lord God. And let their hearts again be turned

Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and he shall sustain thee. He never will suffer the righteous to fall: He is at thy right hand. Thy mercy, Lord, is great, and far above the heavens. Let none be made ashamed, that wait upon Thee!

O Thou, who makest Thine angels spirits; Thou, whose ministers are flaming fires: let them now descend!

The People
The fire descends from heaven! The flames consume his offering! Before Him upon your faces fall! The Lord is God, the Lord is God! O Israel hear! Our God is one Lord, and we will have no other gods before the Lord.

The Pope said

"The words of his invocation are dense in meaning and in faith:

"O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that thou, O Lord, art God, and that thou hast turned their hearts back" (verses 36-37; cf. Genesis 32:36-37).

Elijah turns to the Lord, calling Him God of the Fathers; he thus makes implicit reference to the divine promises and to the history of election and covenant that indissolubly united the Lord to His people.

God's involvement in mankind's history is such that His Name is now inseparably connected with those of the Patriarchs, and the prophet pronounces that holy Name so that God might remember and reveal His fidelity; but he also does this in order that Israel might hear itself called by name and rediscover its own faithfulness.

But Elijah's pronouncement of the divine title appears a bit surprising.

Instead of using the usual formula, "God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob," he employs a less common appellative: "God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Israel."

The substitution of the Name "Jacob" with "Israel" evokes Jacob's struggle at the ford of the Jabbok along with the name change to which the narrator makes explicit reference (cf. Genesis 32:21) and which I spoke about in one of the most recent catecheses. This substitution becomes pregnant with meaning within the context of Elijah's invocation.

The prophet is praying for the people of the Northern Kingdom, which was called Israel, as distinct from Judah, which indicated the Southern Kingdom.

And now, this people, who seem to have forgotten their own origins and their own privileged relationship with the Lord, hear themselves called by name, as the Name of God -- God of the Patriarch and God of the people -- is also pronounced:

"Lord, God [ … ] of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel."

The people for whom Elijah prays is placed once again before its own truth, and the prophet asks that the Lord's truth also be revealed, and that He intervene in Israel's conversion by turning it away from the deception of idolatry, thus bringing it to salvation.

His request is that the people finally know -- and know in fullness -- who truly is their God, and that they make the decisive choice to follow Him alone, the true God. For only in this way is God acknowledged as He truly is – Absolute and Transcendent -- without the possibility of putting him next to other gods, which would deny Him as the Absolute by relativizing Him.

This is the faith that makes Israel God's people; it is the faith proclaimed in the well known text of the Shema'Israel:

"Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might" (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).

To God's absolute, the believer must respond with an absolute, total love that commits his entire life, his strength, his heart. And by his prayer, the prophet begs conversion precisely for his people's hearts:

"that this people may know that thou, O Lord, art God, and that thou hast turned their hearts back!" (1 Kings 18:37).

By his intercession, Elijah asks of God what God himself desires to do -- reveal Himself in all His mercy, faithful to His own reality as the Lord of life who forgives, converts and transforms."

God responds to Elijah`s prayer

The Pope continued:

"And so it happens:

"Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, 'The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God'" (verses 38-39).

Fire, this element at the same time so necessary and so terrible, which is tied to the divine manifestations of the burning bush and of Sinai, now serves to signal the love of God that responds to prayer and reveals itself to His people. Baal, the mute and powerless god, failed to respond to his prophets' invocations.

It was the Lord who responded, and in an unequivocal way, not only by burning the holocaust, but even by drying up all of the water that had been poured out around the altar. Israel can no longer doubt; divine mercy has come to meet them in their weakness, in their doubt, in their lack of faith. Now, Baal the vain idol is conquered, and the people, who seemed lost, rediscover the path of truth and rediscover themselves."

Musa son of Stefan (from Aleppo, Syria)
c. 17th century
Elijah thanks God after the triumph over the priests of Baal
Painted porcelain tile
Musée du Louvre, Paris

The Pope concludes

"[W]hat does this history of the past have to say to us? What is this history's present?

What is in question here first and foremost is the priority of the first commandment: to adore God alone. Where God disappears, man falls into the slavery of idolatry, as the totalitarian regimes of our own time have demonstrated, along with the various forms of nihilism that make man dependent upon idols, upon idolatry -- they enslave him.

Second: the primary end of prayer is conversion: the fire of God transforms our hearts and makes us capable of seeing God, of living according to God and of living for the other.

And the third point: The Fathers tell us that this history of a prophet is also prophetic, if -- they say -- it foreshadows the future, the future Christ, it is a step on the path to Christ. And they tell us that here we see the true fire of God: the love that leads the Lord all the way to the Cross, to the total gift of Himself. True adoration of God, then, is to give oneself to God and to men -- true adoration is love.

And true adoration of God does not destroy, but renews. Certainly, the fire of God, the fire of love burns, transforms, purifies, but it is precisely in this way that it does not destroy but rather creates the truth of our being, recreates our hearts.

And thus, truly alive by the grace of the fire of the Holy Spirit, of God's love, may we be adorers in spirit and in truth."

Other Matters

For the full oratorio [108 mins] by Chapel Choir & St. Olaf Orchestra in Minnesota you may wish to click the link