19th Sunday Ordinary Time
Deacon Les Ruhrmund
Of all the prophets in the Old Testament, none has kept so vivid a hold on the popular mind as Elijah who lived about 900 years before Christ. By Jewish tradition, Elijah has not died and the prophet Malachi says that Elijah will return to prepare the way for the Messiah. In the Christian tradition, John the Baptist fulfills this prophesy preparing the way for Jesus.
In the first reading we find the great prophet Elijah in a state of despair. He has fled into the wilderness and he’s fed up with life; he wants out, he’s had enough.
Ironically this follows one of his greatest victories as a prophet: the victory being a dramatic demonstration on Mount Carmel to the people of Israel of the reality and the power of God versus the impotence of their pagan idols. But Jezebel, the wife of Israel’s King Ahab, angered over the loss of her pagan prophets, has vowed to have Elijah killed.
And so it is that Elijah flees for his life into the wilderness and asks God to let him die. His prayer is answered with a gift of bread and water – food to nourish and sustain him for 40 days and 40 nights as he walks through the desert to Mount Horeb, also known as Mt Sinai, where Moses had received the Ten Commandments from God.
Have not many of us at some time in our lives experienced that lonely, dark place of bleakness where there just doesn’t seem to be any point or reason to continue? Perhaps even prayed as Elijah did for this life to end? Throughout our lives, in times of darkness and in times of light, God provides the bread of life to sustain, nourish and encourage us. The bread of life, John tells us in the Gospel reading, is Jesus.
In this Gospel extract, Jesus makes a number of very startling claims that really upset his followers.
“Surely this is the son of Joseph? We know his father and mother – how can he say he has come down from heaven?”
Undeterred, Jesus goes on and says:
– I have been sent by the Father that through me you may have eternal life
– I am the resurrection
– I am the fulfillment of the prophet’s teaching that “they shall all be taught by God” – I am that teacher and have come to teach everyone; not just the people of Israel
– I am the only one who has ever seen the Father
– Your ancestors who ate the bread that came from heaven in the form of manna have all died; I am the bread from heaven that promises eternal life
– This bread is my flesh given for the life of the world
I don’t think we can fully understand just how radical and outrageous these words of Jesus would have been to his audience.
This would have been enough to persuade many that he was a lunatic and it’s not surprising that many of his disciples turned away and reject him at this point.
C.S. Lewis, in his book “Mere Christianity,” makes the following statement about Jesus:
“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. A great moral teacher would not call himself God. A rabbi who was merely a rabbi would not call himself Lord. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.”
The full significance and reality of Jesus’ words only became clear after the events of the Easter Triduum; the Last Supper, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.
Both readings imply hunger.
Elijah was hungry for a reason to live. He needed to be assured that there was some purpose in his mission. That he wasn’t fighting alone, what seemed to be a losing battle.
After he had received the bread and water from God in the desert, he went in search of God and heard God’s gentle voice in the quietness on Mt Sinai. He lived on with renewed faith and zeal to complete an extraordinary life as a great prophet and reformer.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus addresses that innate hunger for God that haunts each of us.
We are created by God to be in relationship with God and our hunger is a craving for intimacy with God. That intimacy is most profoundly expressed in the liturgy of the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, we receive the bread that is Christ’s body that was given for the life of the world. It is the food that sustains, nourishes and encourages us on our journey. But we don’t live only to eat. We eat that we may live.
The Eucharist in itself will not satisfy our hunger. It gives us the grace to be like Christ but unless we receive that grace into our hearts and manifest that grace in the way in which we live our lives, then it is wasted on us.
When we move away from a close relationship with God, the hunger is often appeased with an appetite for pleasures and pursuits that offer superficial relief. And the Eucharist comes to mean little more in our lives than fulfilling a Sunday obligation; a practice of habit rather than love.
The closer we are to God, the greater becomes our craving for those delicacies that are the fruits of the Holy Spirit that St Paul writes about in the second reading; kindness, gentleness, love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, patience. Interestingly, love and adoration of Jesus, the bread of life, while bringing comfort in our hunger, creates an even greater hunger;
a hunger for justice and peace;
a hunger to make the world a better place;
a hunger that causes us to weep for the poor and the abused and the sick;
a hunger to share the good news of our salvation through Christ.
The closer we are to God the more we need the Eucharist.
Jesus says that no one can come to him unless drawn by the Father. We are here to receive Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament because we are drawn here by the Father.
Paraphrasing St Paul in the second reading:
“Let us try then to imitate God, as children of his that he loves, and follow Christ by loving as he loves us.”