”Do nothing at all unless you begin with prayer.” ~ Saint Ephrem
In today’s 1st Reading (1 Kings 17:7-16), we revisit the Prophet Elijah’s encounter with the widow of Zarephath, a seemingly innocuous and chance meeting that would soon flourish into a faith tale for the ages. For it is in this story that the widow, simultaneously mourning her deceased husband while planning her death and the death of her young son ~ dual victims of a brutal famine that had wrought devastation upon Zarephath ~ gave the gift of everything.
“Please bring me a small cupful of water to drink.” This is Elijah’s simply request of the widow. As she left to get it, he called our to her to “please bring along a bit of bread.” She explains to Elijah that she had but a handful of flour in her jar and a little oil in her jug. Upon Elijah’s arrival, the widow was in fact preparing a small meal for her and her son, convinced that upon completion of this meal that would both die.
“Do not be afraid,” Elijah implored the widow, instructing her to first make him a little cake, then to prepare something for herself and her son. She promptly left and did as Elijah had asked. We are told that she was able to eat for a year, as were Elijah and her son. With her faith rewarded countless times over and scripture having been fulfilled (“the jar of flour shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, until the day when the Lord sends rain upon the earth.”) we are left to ask ourselves:
Would we have had the faith of the mourning and starving widow? To give the gift of everything you have?
Today’s Reading reminds us that when we seemingly have nothing, we in fact always have God, who is everything. God Himself is the giver of all good gifts. He who Himself is “the Gift of Everything.” The widow’s encounter with God is not unlike ours. We give, oftentimes meagerly, sometimes halfheartedly, sometimes with a joyful and generous heart. But regardless of our disposition or largesse, we can be sure of one thing: we always get back far more ~ infinitely more ~ than we give to God. You cannot “out-give” God; it’s impossible.
But this leap of faith has to begin somewhere. For Saint Ephrem of Syria, it began with prayer. Saint Ephrem was considered by some to be the greatest poet of the patristic age, assuming his place alongside the likes of the great divine poet Dante in the lofty and rarefied air of poetic theologians. He was in fact a master poet, so much so that the beauty and skill of his Syriac verse is still studied in academic circles today. His poems fill churches throughout the world, his profound, mystical meditations on all aspects of salvation history enriching the faithful. Yet the quote I chose to kick off today’s reflection on this his Feast Day is beautiful in its sheer simplicity. Perhaps it was in following his own sage advice, to envelope everything in prayer, that he was able to achieve the greatness that he did. Saint Ephrem indeed reminds us that no matter how alone you may think you are, God is only a prayer away.
As for the widow of Zarepath, I once again turn to the ever-quotable Saint Ephrem, who once said “blessed the one who always keeps the memory of God in himself, he will be wholly like an Angel from heaven upon earth, ministering to the Lord with fear and love.“ This faithful and obedient servant of God shows us that when we root our lives in prayer, remain hopeful, and refrain from all needless worry and misguided anxiety, God will provide the rest in abundant generosity.
For a brief reflection on Mark’s rendition of today’s Gospel (Matthew 5:13-16) I invite you to revisit the following link: