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October - November 2013

Our original selfishness

 

The doctrine of original sin is an essential truth of the Christian faith. The traditional understanding of the account made in Genesis 3 of the original sin and consequent punishment by God, expelling human beings from Eden, has contributed to shape our world-view and negative understanding of human fragility, sinfulness, painful work, sexuality, suffering and death—and hasn’t helped us to accept them as part and parcel of our human condition. A theological explanation of Jesus’ death as expiation for humankind’s sinfulness may suggest, among other things, that God had to correct His original plan for humanity.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (nn. 385–421), summarizing the Catholic theology on the issue, presents original sin as a “disobedient choice of our first parents”, “a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man”, an act through which man “scorned God”, lost “the grace of original holiness” and “the world is virtually inundated by sin”. It is a ‘safe position’ considering that even Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI when he was still the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had to admit that “[t]he inability to understand ‘original sin’ and to make it understandable is really one of the most difficult problems of present-day theology and pastoral ministry”.

 

 

Challenges – The vocation of Elijah

The prophet of fire and zeal

 

These are “trying times”, we often say, but in reality the “good times” exist only in our short nostalgic memory. Every period has its challenges and difficulties which put to the test the faith and commitment of those who believe

 

Fr Manuel João Correia

Comboni Missionary

 

The days of the prophet Elijah were no less difficult than ours. He exercised his ministry in the mid-9th century BC, in the Kingdom of Israel. From a social and political point of view, it was a flourishing period for the northern Kingdom, an era of peace and economic prosperity but also of great idolatry—like ours.

 

The king of Israel at that time was the impious Ahab, who, adding insult to injury, had married the perverse Queen Jezebel, daughter of the King of Tyre. Jezebel brought along her ‘lord’ and ‘spouse’, Baal, the god of rain and fertility. She was determined to impose, by any means, everywhere, the cult of Baal (1 Kings 16: 30–33). Perhaps, we can see in this an analogy in our present times—a propensity for idolatry. It’s enough to change the name of the ‘Queen’ and of the ‘god’. The ‘gods’ are innumerable. The method to obfuscate the minds and enslave the consciences, the indifference with which so many victims are sacrificed to the idols, does not differ much. The light of faith seems to vanish, the voice of the witnesses is silenced and even the sky seems to be overshadowed.

 

It is in this context that God raises an extraordinary witness in the person of the prophet Elijah. He appears abruptly in chapter 17 of the first book of Kings, announcing a drought. His words resound like lightning in a serene sky in the rich and idolatrous Kingdom of Israel: “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, during these years there shall be no dew or rain except at my word” (1 Kings 17: 1). Heaven obeys him. There’s no rain even though Baal claims to be the lord of rain. The parched earth cannot generate life. Death threatens all—men and animals.

 

 

 

 

 

Fire and zeal

 

The prophet Elijah is one of the greatest biblical figures. His extraordinary personality, his intrepid and heroic character, his singular prophetic charism made him the prophet by antonomasia. Let us remember that Elijah appears with Moses, speaking with Jesus during His Transfiguration. His persona has fascinated the Jewish and Christian traditions throughout the ages.

 

Elijah is the prophet of fire: “Until like fire a prophet appeared” (Sirach 48: 1). His prayer brings down fire from heaven to devour the sacrifice prepared for the Lord on Mount Carmel, challenging and deriding the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18). At the end of his life, he is taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire (cf. 2 Kings 2: 1.11).

 

He is a prophet of fire because his heart is “full of zeal for the Lord”, as he repeats twice during God’s Epiphany on Mount Sinai (1 Kings 19: 14). That zeal consumes all his life and ministry, like Jesus’ ministry. Jesus too brought fire to the earth and His heart was consumed by the same zeal: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” (Luke 12: 49).

 

In Greek, the word “zeal” has the connotation of “fire”.

 

The school of Jesus

 

Today, there’s a lack of such fire in the hearts of Christians. Where is the flame kindled by the heart of Christ? The hearts without flame and covered with ashes abound. Everything is done without zeal and without elation. Our ideals don’t arouse enthusiasm, as if they were coming from and being proposed to amorphous hearts. It seems we feel unable to fall in love, to have a passion for a person or an ideal. We even doubt and become suspicious when someone defends an idea with a certain conviction or shows a little more zeal in his/her life. It’s not “politically correct”, it may “offend others’ sensibility”. Relativism tends to reign and, consequently, apathy.

 

It seems that zeal today is more characteristic of evil forces. Just think, for example, of terrorism and its intense destructive energy, full of hatred and violence; or in the aggressive manipulation of consciences orchestrated by certain promoters of movements of what Pope John Paul II called the “culture of death”; or still, in the greedy global financial system with its “market laws” marginalizes entire populations and spreads what Pope Francis calls the “culture of waste”.

 

Today, we need prophets of fire and zeal like Elijah, to witness the true and living God and to promote the culture of life. How to find them? How to awaken in us the spirit of Elijah? How to inherit a “double portion” of his spirit as asked by his disciple Elisha?—by attending his same school: withdrawing into solitude and living with the poor! Jesus too went to this school. Firstly, in the retreat in Nazareth which was followed by the one in the desert—to receive the teachings of the Spirit and be imbued with His strength. Secondly, living with the poor and miserable of the world—to experience and receive the Father’s compassion. Thus, He proclaims in the synagogue of Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (Luke 4: 18–19).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Firstly, the retreat

 

If the structure of a building is not supported by adequate foundations, the building is in danger of collapsing. The same is true in the case of a person called to exercise a ministry in the Church: he must, first of all, have been alone with God and the roots of his spirituality must have reached the deep waters of contemplation, otherwise, he will be a spreader of ideas but not a witness. It is necessary that his ear be accustomed to ‘hear’, so that his tongue may be able to ‘speak’. Without the times in the desert and the loneliness that favour the encounter with God in prayer, there is no prophecy.

 

Therefore, the first thing God does with Elijah is to send him on retreat: “Leave here, go east and hide in the Wadi Cherith, east of the Jordan” (1 Kings 17: 3). Knowing to “withdraw”, to “hide”, to “orientate” one’s life, here’s the abc of every disciple. It’s the same invitation that Jesus addresses to us: “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you” (Matthew 6: 6).

 

Only in that school will we be able to know our real name—“Elijah” (Eliyahu, “My God is Yahweh”)—and learn “to be continually in God’s presence and at His service”, as Elijah (cf. 1 Kings 17: 1; 18: 15). The testimony of his life helps us to understand that the real temptation and the supreme evil is not atheism, but idolatry. Atheism can be a cry of suffering and results from the pain of an absence. Idolatry, instead, ushers in a deep coma, the antechamber of death.

 

After, the city’s outskirts

 

From the ‘periphery’ of his retreat located on the “east of the Jordan”, Elijah is sent northwards to the pagan lands of Queen Jezebel, to another periphery—of a town, of the poor and disadvantaged: “Arise, go to Zarephath of Sidon and stay there. I have commanded a widow there to feed you” (1 Kings 17: 19). Sharing the life of the poor and embracing an essential and simple lifestyle is the second stage in the journey of the apostle. The poor are another privileged place of God’s presence. Only with their help can we recognise the true face of God, love and justice. With them, we learn that God loves and re-establishes justice, responding to the cry of the widow.

 

The many barriers created by social, ethnic and religious differences separate us not only from the “others” of different race and colour, language and culture, but also from the “Other” who incarnates in all. We need to be closer to the ‘marginalised’, although never as today are they so close to us. We can, therefore, understand the insistence of Pope Francis, inviting the pastors of the Church (but not just them!) to go to the “peripheries”.

 

It is worthwhile to quote his fiery appeal addressed to priests on Holy Thursday: “Our people like to hear the Gospel preached with “unction”, they like it when the Gospel we preach touches their daily lives, when it runs down like the oil of Aaron to the edges of reality, when it brings light to moments of extreme darkness, to the ‘outskirts’ where people of faith are most exposed to the onslaught of those who want to tear down their faith. People thank us because they feel that we have prayed over the realities of their everyday lives, their troubles, their joys, their burdens and their hopes.”

 

“Those who do not go out of themselves, instead of being mediators, gradually become intermediaries, managers. We know the difference: the intermediary, the manager, ‘has already received his reward’, and since he doesn’t put his own skin and his own heart on the line, he never hears a warm, heartfelt word of thanks. This is precisely the reason for the dissatisfaction of some, who end up sad—sad priests—in some sense becoming collectors of antiques or novelties, instead of being shepherds living with ‘the odour of the sheep’.”

 

 

“Our innate tendency is to egotistically save ourselves, because we are born self-centred. Our work for salvation implies that, with God’s grace, we override our basic instinct of self-preservation and give ourselves up for the good of all, like Jesus.”

“The life and vocation of Moses is a unique mix of solidarity and loneliness. As a prophet placed between God and his people, he lived between two worlds, torn by two passions.”

“There is no more beautiful a task than devoting oneself to building bridges between men and between things, especially in a time when there are so many builders of barriers.”

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