Washington Allston (American, 1779-1843), Elijah in the Desert (1818). The donor who owned this painting, Alice Hooper and her mother, said that they would donate it if Martin Brimmer and his group would build a Museum to house it, and built as an encouragement to other American painters. And so they built the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and this painting was the first in its collection.
About the Artist:
Washington Allston was the son of a prominent South Carolina plantation owner of English descent, who began drawing at the age of six. His intellectual diligence led him to Harvard College in Boston, where he earned his degree in Classics (Greek and Latin literature), but where he came under the influence of the Romantics. He studied at the Royal Academy in London, then for a time in Paris, and finally spending three years studying painting in Rome. While there he became friends with Washington Irving (1783-1859, writer and diplomat) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834, English poet, literary critic, philosopher and theologian), who with William Wordsworth (1770-1850) founded the Romantic movement. “Given Allston’s European successes, technical sophistication, and intellectualism … enhanced for many Americans his identification with the Romantic ideal of the fine arts.”
* 1 Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab: “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.” 2 The word of the Lord came to Elijah: 3 Leave here, go east and hide in the Wadi Cherith, east of the Jordan. 4 You shall drink of the wadi, and I have commanded ravens to feed you there. 5 So he left and did as the Lord had commanded. He left and remained by the Wadi Cherith, east of the Jordan. 6 bRavens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the wadi.
First, notice how the painting expresses the contrast between something very large – the expanse of desert wilderness and open sky – and something very small – Elijah the Tishbite … and those tiny hands open towards the arriving gift. Even the raven, who descends to feed Elijah with “bread and meat” (1 Kings 17:6), is from wingtip to wingtip nearly as long as Elijah, by which Allston magnifies not just the smallness of Elijah, but also his insignificance. The schooling of this Prophet has begun when he understands that his greatness will lie in the amount of smallness that he is willing to accept in the service of the One Who made the universe. In this regard Elijah becomes an Advent image of the smallness that the Trinity became when the second Divine Person, letting go of so much, became tiny inside the eyes and gestures of a little baby in a manger –“the little Lord Jesus / lays down His sweet head.”
Second, notice further that the very smallness already remarked about Elijah kneeling there hides the largeness of the obedience that he has given to God who called him (off stage, if you will) to announce to King Ahab a long-lasting drought throughout the Kingdom. It is one thing to accept the loss of everything “normal” in one’s life in order to be a Prophet of God, sent on a moment’s notice to whomever God sends him to speak. But it is quite another thing to be sent to speak to a King, his King, one evil and dangerous, who was well able to crush Elijah to dust with a single command. Hidden in that diminutive Elijah we see kneeling there is a soul so fierce that it is willing to offer an extraordinary obedience to God. And the price for this obedience he is already paying within moments of completing his first mission (1 Kings 17:1). Let us be filled with wonder seeing Elijah there, all alone, far from home, from friends, and from family, sent deep into the desert wilderness to stay (for years?). “Is my life over?”, he must have asked to that turbulent sky.
Third, notice the tree standing by that pond of still water – “to still waters He leads me” (Psalm 23:2b). That tree’s starkness is striking, compelling the eye to wonder about it. Its boney branches seem to claw at the sky as an animal cornered claws and cries out towards a foe far bigger than it. Yet the two “arms” of the tree also appear to be opened out to the sky, as if in a liturgical gesture of prayer – beseeching, but also angry, defended. We observe how barren those “arms” have become – without leaves or fruit. We do not expect that because its roots are so near to the edge of abundant water – “He is like a tree planted near streams of water / that yields its fruit in season: / Its leaves never wither; / whatever he does prospers” (Psalm 1:3). Could it be that the landscape symbolizes a violence that Elijah experiences within himself, who gave his Yes to God … and then lost everything because of it? Perhaps something here of Jeremiah 20 – the intense consolation experienced in verse 13, but then the jolt of utter loss and feelings of despair in verse 14.
13 Sing to the Lord,
praise the Lord,
For he has rescued the life of the poor
from the power of the evildoers! j
Christmas may be for children. But Advent is for grown-ups.
These lines taken from the First Reading (Isaiah 61:1-2a) of the Mass for the Third Week of Advent – “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, / because the Lord has anointed me; / he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, / to heal the brokenhearted, / to proclaim liberty to the captives / and release to the prisoner, / to announce a year of favor from the Lord / and a day of vindication by our God.”
 Steinberg, D. (2003). Allston, Washington. Grove Art Online. Retrieved 10 Dec. 2017, from http://www.oxfordartonline.com/groveart/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-7000001941. This quotation and the biographical elements sketched here are from this source book.
* The story of Elijah is in three parts. The first (chap. 17) describes how Elijah proclaimed a drought on God’s authority and how he survived during the drought. The second (chap. 18) describes how he ends the drought by bringing the populace back to exclusive worship of the Lord. The third (chap. 19) describes Elijah’s despair at the failure of his prophetic mission and his consequent attempt to resign from the prophetic office.
 “Given the lack of rain in specific seasons of the year in that region, Baal cultists had to explain why Baal could not guarantee rain at all times. They said that Baal submitted to Mot, the god of death, each year, which caused drought and barrenness to the land. Eventually Anat defeated Mot and freed Baal, which restored fertility. A. Hauser believes: ‘The Canaanites’ equating of fertility with the presence of a live and vibrant Baal, who as the storm god sent the life-preserving rains onto the land, and their equating of drought and famine with the periodic death of Baal, set the stage for the stories in 1 Kings 17–19.’ Elijah must find a way to expose Baal as a nonentity and at the same time reestablish Yahweh as sovereign in the people’s minds.” – Paul R. House, 1, 2 Kings, vol. 8, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 210–211.
b Ex 16:8, 12.
 Charles Kannengiesser and Myla Perraymond, “Elijah, Prophet,” ed. Angelo Di Berardino and James Hoover, trans. Joseph T. Papa, Erik A. Koenke, and Eric E. Hewett, Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic; InterVarsity Press, 2014), 795 – “In the Syriac tradition, Elijah appears as a giant of biblical prophecy, a man of action and prayer, “prophet and father of prophets,” esp. in *Aphraates and *Ephrem. Among the Latins, according to Cyprian (Ep. 67, 8) Elijah is a model of the martyrs; a prophet of the last days for Hilary (Com. Mt. 26, 6), *Augustine (Civ. Dei 20, 29) and Gregory the Great (Moral. XI, 15, 24); an ascetic of the desert, virgin and poor, for Ambrose, who dedicates a whole treatise to him, De Helia et ieiunio; a model of monastic life for Jerome (Ep. 58, 5) and John Cassian (Inst. 1, 1; Conl. 14, 4; 18, 6). The Pelagian crisis would emphasize his need of grace, and Isidore of Seville would see in Elijah’s assumption a distant annunciation of Christ’s ascension.”
 A. Colin Day, Collins Thesaurus of the Bible (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009) concerning “raven” – “The raven, an unclean bird (Lev. 11:15; Deut. 14:14); Noah sent out the raven (Gen. 8:7); God feeds the ravens (Ps. 147:9); who gives food to the ravens? (Job 38:41); ravens fed Elijah (1 Kgs. 17:4; 1 Kgs. 17:6); the raven will dwell in it (Isa. 34:11); the ravens will pluck out the eye (Prov. 30:17); ravens neither sow nor reap (Luke 12:24).”
 Deborah A. Appler, “Ahab,” ed. David Noel Freedman, Allen C. Myers, and Astrid B. Beck, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000), 30 – “King Ahab of Israel (ca. 875–854 B.C.E.) and successor to his father Omri, who arranged a marriage between Ahab and Jezebel, daughter of King Ethbaal of Tyre, to secure good relations between Phoenicia and Israel. Ahab’s 70 sons in Samaria were murdered by Jehu in his coup (2 Kgs. 10), and his daughter (or sister) Athaliah reigned in Judah (843–837) until her murder. A nemesis to the prophet Elijah, Ahab is considered by the Deuteronomistic historian to be the most evil king in Israel (1 Kgs. 16:30, 33; 21:25; Mic. 6:16) and is compared to the evil Manasseh of Judah (2 Kgs. 21:3). Yet, there appear to be inconsistencies between the biblical text and archaeological data.”
 It is an interesting point in the telling of this story that unlike other Prophets in the Old Testament, we have no account of the “first contact” moment when God selected the Prophet to stand in for him before the powers of the world. Rather that “calling” happens, as I say, “off stage”. We pick up his story in media res, after he had already gone to King Ahab, challenging the King “in his den”, speaking a word of power to him the consequence of which will put his Kingdom and his capacity to reign over it in significant danger. Not good to do that to any King. The first time we hear God speaking into his life is at 1 Kings 17:2, when God tells Elijah to flee into the wilderness, lest he be murdered by the King whom he has dared to challenge – “no dew or rain except at my word” (v 1c).
j Ps 35:9–10; 109:30–31.
* Deception, sorrow and terror have brought the prophet to the point of despair; nevertheless he maintains confidence in God (vv. 11–13); cf. Jb 3:3–12.
k Jer 15:10; Jb 3:1–10; 10:18.