The first thing my grandma asked when I came out was whether I’d been taking communion. If I go back to my home parish these days, my childhood deacon and his wife—whose dog and plants I used to sit for, who once took me on a road trip to Denver—ask me the same thing.
Today’s Gospel always gives me heartburn. Calling a woman a dog and refusing to heal her child seems inconsistent, to put it mildly, with Jesus’s teachings on universal welcome and abundant grace. Why the sudden parsimony over scraps when you just fed five thousand with a few loaves and fish? And didn’t you just roast the Pharisees for putting appearances above acts of faith? And now you turn someone away because she looks a little different? What lesson are we supposed to take from that?
With its ominous call to “let justice prevail at the gate,” the first reading evokes images of Jon Snow holding off White Walkers at the Wall, Prof. McGonagall leading enchanted suits of armor into the Battle for Hogwarts, and Thor destroying the armies of the undead on the Bifrost. It’s the classic good versus evil, light over dark, life against death scenario that sets your adrenaline running and makes you believe in magical saviors and miraculous last stands. Moreover, it makes you believe in clear battle lines and moments of truth that are so frustratingly elusive in real life.
Today’s reading from the Hebrew Bible depicts Elijah’s contest on Mt. Carmel with the prophets of Baal. The prophet Elijah must convince Israel during the crisis of a drought and famine that the Lord is the only true God. His opponents worship the Canaanite god Baal who is known from the pantheon of Ugarit, an ancient major trading port in modern-day northern Syria which predates Israel by a couple hundred years. Despite their temporal distance, Ugaritic literature describes Baal with similar language the Hebrew Bible describes the Lord. Both are depicted as storm gods who wield lightning bolts as weapons, ride on clouds, and have control over meteorological events.