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The Everyday Prayer

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Icon of the Holy Face
Church of Sant'Egidio, Rome

Reading of the Word of God

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia

I am the good shepherd,
my sheep listen to my voice,
and they become
one flock and one fold.

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia

1 Samuel 4,1b-11

The Philistines drew up their battle-line against Israel, the fighting was fierce, and Israel was beaten by the Philistines: about four thousand men in their ranks were killed on the field of battle. When the troops returned to camp, the elders of Israel said, 'Why has Yahweh caused us to be beaten by the Philistines today? Let us fetch the ark of our God from Shiloh so that, when it goes with us, it may save us from the clutches of our enemies.' So the troops sent to Shiloh and brought away the ark of Yahweh Sabaoth enthroned on the winged creatures; the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, came with the ark. When the ark of Yahweh arrived in the camp, all Israel raised a great war cry so that the earth resounded. When the Philistines heard the noise of the war cry, they said, 'What can this great war cry in the Hebrew camp mean?' And they realised that the ark of Yahweh had come into the camp. At this, the Philistines were afraid; for they said, 'God has come into the camp. Disaster!' they said. 'For nothing like this has ever happened before. Disaster! Who will rescue us from the clutches of this mighty God? This was the God who struck down Egypt with every kind of misfortune in the desert. But take courage and be men, Philistines, or you will become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been slaves to you. Be men and fight.' So the Philistines gave battle and Israel was defeated, each man fleeing to his tent. The slaughter was very great: on the Israelite side, thirty thousand foot soldiers fell. The ark of God was captured too, and Hophni and Phinehas the two sons of Eli died.


Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia

I give you a new commandment,
that you love one another.

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia

Chapters 4-6, called the "story of the ark," show once again that the "hand of God" is what always guides the events of history. In these stories, in fact, Samuel, who has just been chosen by God as his prophet, does not appear. The Lord himself seems to want to act directly. In chapter 4, the first episode tells the dramatic and sweeping story of the ark (chapters 4-6): the first real big battle between the Israelites and the Philistines, regarded as the true owners of the land. In the first confrontation, the Israelites are defeated, and the elders attribute it to the absence of the ark in battle. They do not ask themselves if they are faithful to the Lord’s teachings, rather they think that everything depends on the physical presence or absence of the ark in their midst. In fact, when they see the ark coming, both their enthusiasm and confidence are restored and the ancient energies of war are unleashed (v. 5). The Philistines hear their enthusiastic cries and begin to worry (v. 6). They fear the God of Israel. They do not know God’s name, but they feel that his power now dwells in Israel and is against them. They recognize that "nothing like this has happened before" (v. 7) and they think that this new situation is analogous to what led to the defeat of the Egyptians (v. 8). In fact, the Philistines correctly interpret the history and the faith of Israel as they fearfully remembered what happened to the Egyptians. Remembering, however, does not lead the Philistines to surrender. On the contrary, the fear of submission makes them regain their courage and boldness (v. 9). They re-engage in battle and win a second time. Even the ark, in which Israel again placed its trust and before which the Philistines trembled with fear, could not save Israel from defeat. The author, however, does not offer any explanation about it. The result of this second battle only shows that Israel’s confidence and the Philistines’ fear were misplaced (vv. 10-11). What is clear is that the defeat cannot be understood as a consequence of the Lord—present in the ark—being absent, but that the Lord himself permitted the defeat. Israel is troubled. The problem, in fact, was not God’s absence, but what Israel had done with its privileged and trusting relationship with the Lord. The ark’s capture and the death of Eli’s two sons, in charge of carrying the ark, reveal that an outward allegiance to the Lord is not enough if one’s heart and behaviour are distant from the Law. If the heart is absent, then the presence or absence of the ark does not make any difference: Israel is still defeated. Of course, the second loss is more shocking (v.10). But the covenant with God only holds if there is a direct and personal relationship with him. A bond of friendship, even more than ritual practices, substantiates Biblical faith. Yes, the ark is the place of God’s presence, but a faithful relationship with the Lord is what is required of the faithful, which the ark favours, but cannot replace.

Memory of the Church