Nineteenth Sunday in ordinary time: Desert wisdom
1 Kings 19, 4-8; Ephesians 4, 30 - 5,2; John 6, 41-51.
The concept of desert wisdom is a very basic concept in Christian living. The desert, in itself, is a space, an experience that can be arid, and a place where one can easily feel lost and without bearing. But from a biblical perspective, entering the desert can make one reconnect with oneself rather than feeling lost.
This is the case of Elijah, the prophet in today’s first reading. Elijah is depicted in the Scriptures as a fierce character, uncompromising, provocative and extremely sensitive. Yet today’s account of the reality around him at the time of king Ahab was impacting on him so negatively that he becomes a radically different man. In today’s text, Elijah is literally in despair.
The feeling that his mission was a total failure coupled with a strong perception that the forces of evil had taken control of the reign of Judah put to question his strong faith in God. He “went into the wilderness, a day’s journey and wished he were dead”. The reign of Judah at the time was spiritually going through an all-time low. With Ahab as king, the prophets of the Lord were outlawed, the worship of the true God was banned and Baal turned to be the official god of Israel.
This was a big blow on Elijah’s sensibility and on his mission. Everything seemed lost and the power of God’s grace which was always made manifest against all odds, now seemed to be vanishing into thin air. This was devastating. This was the real desert experience for Elijah. The desert for him was not simply the place where he fled to find refuge but metaphorically it was his own state of mind and heart.
Yet his entering into the wilderness was the volte-face of his real spiritual experience. In this darkest of nights, he discovered the light, he experienced the God he thought was lost. Elijah experienced God’s presence precisely in his absence. It is the case of what desert wisdom really means and what it can then lead us to.
This is also what Paul means to say in the second reading when he writes to the Ephesians: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God”. Grieving the Spirit means not being open enough to let God be God, to let the Spirit breathe where and how it wills. We grieve the Spirit when we subject the Spirit of God to our schemes of thought, to our laws and rules; when our structures and our ways of reasoning become so rigid, making us believe less and less in the power of the Spirit that can manifest itself freely and independently of where we usually locate it.
Grieving the Spirit is also depicted for us in today’s gospel text with the Jews complaining about Jesus and his ways. Jesus was God made man and yet for him it was an uphill struggle to make them believe and understand. They kept resisting him to the end, they could in no way see God in him because for them God was a stereotype, unchanging in his ways of speaking and manifesting himself.
They got it all wrong just as we keep getting it wrong when our religion becomes stereotyped. Today’s Scriptures offer three most powerful texts that can be so enlightening in our reading of the times we are in. The narrative of Christianity, romantically transmitted to us in our childhood days, continues to be communicated in a fairy-tale style and language that can hardly connect even with children in this day and age. Let alone with an adult and scientific mind.
That narrative today, or at least its wrapping, is worn out.