The Catholic Church is now at the very end of a long spiritual drought. Famine is so great that many who grew tired of the empty homilies of the “church of nice” are scouring the horizon in search of nourishment. Gone are the days of the great preachers of our faith: Aquinas, Bellarmine, Charvel, Chrysostom, Neri, Francis of Assisi, and so many others who could feed heart, mind, and soul with the precious fruits of the Word. Our people are content to eat from the humble through of well-intentioned converts, most of them coming from the Protestant ranks. Those fervent new preachers, although thoroughly Catholic, retain the dry rationalistic drift of their Calvinist or Lutheran formation. There is some nourishment in their words but for the most part, they miss the marvels of Scripture, Tradition, and Liturgy and lack the depth of the great teachers of the faith. When a great drought affected Israel during the times of Elijah, the pious men that tried to save surviving people and cattle, had to go far to gather food and contented themselves with whatever nourishment they could find. Until one day, God announced that the period of chastisement was ending. That was a time of fasting for Israel although not a voluntary kind of fasting. To open the meaning of 1 Kings 18 it is good to revisit the teaching of Christ about fasting:
Matthew 9:14-15 – “Then the disciples of John [the Baptist] came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
One does not fast during a royal visit but enjoy the event to the fullest. Was Jesus merely talking about material food? Perhaps this teaching pertains also to spiritual food. While Jesus was there, every word and everything that happened around him could be compared to provisions that the Church had to feed on until his return at the end of the age. In fact, we can expect to be running out of nourishment at the end of that age. That teaching is concealed in Luke 12:37 “Blessed are those servants, whom the Lord when he cometh, shall find watching. Amen, I say to you, that he will gird himself, and make them sit down to meat, and passing will minister unto them.” (Douay Rheims Bible) It seems rather obvious that the feeding will restart when the Lord comes back to his faithful Church.
In the third year of the days of Elijah, the God of Israel announced that the long drought was coming to an end. Notice that the responsible men of Israel had been busy protecting the faithful priests, and the animals that had survived the long rainless time. That is a prophetic model representing the protectors and supporters of the orthodox teaching of the Church in times like ours when apostasy and indifference rule. Faithful Obadiah, in this case, goes to the wilderness to find something, anything to nourish the remaining living things.
1 Kings 18: 1-6 – “After many days the word of the Lord came to Elijah, in the third year, saying, “Go, show yourself to Ahab; and I will send rain upon the earth.” So Elijah went to show himself to Ahab. Now the famine was severe in Samaria. And Ahab called Obadiah, who was over the household. (Now Obadiah revered the Lord greatly; and when Jezebel cut off the prophets of the Lord, Obadiah took a hundred prophets and hid them by fifties in a cave, and fed them with bread and water.) And Ahab said to Obadiah, “Go through the land to all the springs of water and to all the valleys; perhaps we may find grass and save the horses and mules alive, and not lose some of the animals.” So they divided the land between them to pass through it; Ahab went in one direction by himself, and Obadiah went in another direction by himself.”
Obadiah was looking for pastures when Elijah, the man of God, finds him and asks him to tell King Ahab of the prophet’s arrival. Since Elijah was a wanted man. Poor Obadiah reminds Elijah that he is a wanted man, and Obadiah would be risking his life by reporting the prophet’s presence in the Israel. From these verses, we learn that Israel was under the political control of forces opposed to orthodoxy. Those forces thought nothing of exterminating every supporter of Israel’s religion. Considering the plight of Obadiah and his faithfulness, Elijah decides to face King Ahab himself. The plot thickens.
1 Kings 18: 7-16 – “And as Obadiah was on the way, behold, Elijah met him; and Obadiah recognized him, and fell on his face, and said, “Is it you, my lord Elijah?” And he answered him, “It is I. Go, tell your lord, ‘Behold, Elijah is here.’” And he said, “Wherein have I sinned, that you would give your servant into the hand of Ahab, to kill me? As the Lord your God lives, there is no nation or kingdom whither my lord has not sent to seek you; and when they would say, ‘He is not here,’ he would take an oath of the kingdom or nation, that they had not found you. And now you say, ‘Go, tell your lord, “Behold, Elijah is here.”’ And as soon as I have gone from you, the Spirit of the Lord will carry you whither I know not; and so, when I come and tell Ahab and he cannot find you, he will kill me, although I, your servant have revered the Lord from my youth. Has it not been told my lord what I did when Jezebel killed the prophets of the Lord, how I hid a hundred men of the Lord’s prophets by fifties in a cave and fed them with bread and water? And now you say, ‘Go, tell your lord, “Behold, Elijah is here”’; and he will kill me.” And Elijah said, “As the Lord of hosts lives, before whom I stand, I will surely show myself to him today.” So Obadiah went to meet Ahab and told him, and Ahab went to meet Elijah.”
We are not told exactly how the meeting took place but Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal, the official religion so to speak, to meet him at Mount Carmel.
1 Kings 18: 17-19 – “When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” And he answered, ‘I have not troubled Israel, but you have, and your father’s house because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals. Now, therefore, send and gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel, and the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.'”
Notice that the priests of the LORD are hidden in a cave and fed bread and water, and Elijah specifically calls the priests of Baal “who eat a Queen Jezebel’s table”. The table of the LORD is on one side and the table of demons on the opposite side. Two communions in complete opposition are going to face each other on the heights of Mount Carmel. Coincidentally enough the mountain resembles an altar when seen from afar.
Compare the drama unfolding here with the current condition of the Catholic Church. I won’t express the comparison myself, this is something you will have to do on your own. Elijah does not mince words, he goes straight to the matter. Saint Paul would use that image many centuries later in 1 Corinthians 10:21 – “You cannot drink the chalice of the Lord, and the chalice of devils: you cannot be partakers of the table of the Lord, and of the table of devils.” Now the question was: At what table is the True God sitting? Where is the real communion here?
Elijah, quite a gentleman, allows the priests of Baal the first try. The test is simple: the True God will consume the offering – no human fire allowed – the fire must come from God. As the priests of Baal try in vain to bring their god to burn the sacrifice, Elijah piles up ridicule on them. The Christian translators usually skip the part when Elijah mocks Baal: “Perhaps he’s gone to the loo, perhaps he is full of …” I’ve been told the original Hebrew is quite funny. That goes to prove that Jewish humor has not changed much in the last three thousand years.
1 Kings 18: 20-29 – “So Ahab sent to all the people of Israel, and gathered the prophets together at Mount Carmel. And Elijah came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then you go and follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets are four hundred and fifty men. Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves, and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it, and I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it. And you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; and the God who answers by fire, he is God.” And all the people answered, “It is well spoken.” Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; and call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” And they took the bull which was given them, and they prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped about the altar which they had made. And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is musing, or he has gone aside, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances until the blood gushed out upon them. And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice; no one answered, no one heeded.”
Now it is Elijah’s turn. He orders the sacrifice and the altar to be completely soaked in water, then a trench is dug around the altar and filled with water. Water and fire are figures of Christian baptism and the trials that follow. The same elements are a prefiguration of the coming rain and the fiery judgment that is coming upon unfaithful Israel. Again, compare the image with the present situation of the Church.
1 Kings 18: 30-35 – “Then Elijah said to all the people, ‘Come near to me’; and all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down; Elijah took 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”; and with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. And he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two measures of seed. And he put the wood in order, and cut the bull in pieces and laid it on the wood. And he said, ‘Fill four jars with water, and pour it on the burnt offering, and on the wood.’ And he said, ‘Do it a second time’; and they did it a second time. And he said, “Do it a third time”; and they did it a third time. And the water ran round about the altar and filled the trench also with water.”
The answer of God is swift and intense. The altar was built with twelve stones and called “Israel”, water was poured on it, and finally divine fire descends consuming everything. Then the followers of Elijah, with their hearts on fire, pursue the fleeing false priests and “hack them to pieces” leaving not one of them alive. Take heed “innovators” for those are the wages of infidelity.
1 Kings 18: 36-40 – “And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, ‘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 the people may know that thou, O Lord, art God, and that thou hast turned their hearts back.’ 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.’ And Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.’ And they seized them, and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and hacked them to pieces there.”
That skirmish marks the end of the prefiguration. In the hours to follow the prophecy shown in the preceding “image” will be fulfilled: the rain will pour for the first time in seven years, the fiery judgment of God will come upon Israel in the form of war and finally, the evil rule of the Baal worshipers will come to an abrupt and violent end. They will die in shame just like their false priests died in Mount Carmel.
1 Kings 18: 41-46 – “And Elijah said to Ahab, ‘Go up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of the rushing of rain.’ So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Carmel, and he bowed himself down upon the earth and put his face between his knees. And he said to his servant, ‘Go up now, look toward the sea.’ And he went up and looked, and said, ‘There is nothing.’ And he said, ‘Go again seven times.’ And at the seventh time he said, ‘Behold, a little cloud like a man’s hand is rising out of the sea.’ And he said: ‘Go up, instruct Ahab, to prepare his chariot and go down, lest the rain stops him.’ And in a little while, the heavens grew black with clouds and strong wind, and there was a great rain. And Ahab rode and went to Jezreel. And the hand of the Lord was on Elijah, and he girded up his loins and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel.”
King Ahab did not get the message, he did not see that the water and fire at the altar were a scale model of the end of his wicked reign. In the eschatological interpretation of those events, the small cloud appearing over the horizon was understood by the Early Fathers as a figure of Mary the Morning Star, rising over the sea, coming ahead of the LORD to prepare the world for his arrival: water and fire, baptism and judgment. Before the arrival of the electronic age, mariners used the stars to guide themselves to a safe port. That is why Carmelites, since the 12th century, call Our Blessed Mother “Maria Stella Maris”, Mary Star of the Sea because she is there to guide us safely to our final destination: Christ.