Scripture Notebook Conrad Pepler O.P.
19th Sunday of the year
1 Kings c 19 vv 4-8; Ephesians c4 vv30c5 v2; John c6 w41 — 51
THE dispirited prophet, hounded by the ruthless queen Jezebel, goes out into the desert and sitting under the broom tree wants to throw in the sponge. But the Lord revives his drooping spirit with sleep and the "f.00d of angels" — bread baked on flat stones in the hot ashes of the fire as is still the practice of Bedouins in the desert — so that he can make the pilgrimage to Mount Horeb and share the experience of Moses.
Moses after 40 days fast on the holy mountain was exposed to God's presence in a mysterious manner; and similarly Elijah in the cave hears the "still small voice" of the Lord. Moses had there received the Covenant; Elijah there complains that the people of Israel have forsaken that Covenant. That is the setting for today's reading from the first book of Kings.
It shows the pattern of a life beginning with depression or despair and leading by divine intervention to fulfilment in God and that intervention being through the "food of angels." We are not given the full context of the event here, though it must speak to the condition of a very great many, because we are asked to recognise a type of the Eucharist, our Lord's teaching on which is continued in the reading from John chapter 6. This capacity to march for forty days and forty nights comes from the bread prepared by the angel. It seems evident that the purpose of finishing the account in this excerpt with the arrival at Mount Horeb is to point to the type, the fore shadowing of the Eucharist, to be elaborated in the Gospel reading.
That being so we can note that the miraculous meal was followed by a forty days' fast. Without being too precious, and above all without wishing to detract from the evident blessings of daily Communion, we can take a lesson from Elijah's journey that an exaggerated attachment to receiving Holy Communion every day may breed a strain of superstition in one's
spiritual life, tending towards a literalism which obscures the full understanding of this bread from heaven. Perhaps some clearer idea of what to walk "in the strength of that food" — the eucharistic body of Christ — may appear if we turn to the Gospel reading.
The account of the aftermath of the feeding of the five thousand continues from last Sunday's reading. The Jews, at first so enthusiastic because they thought they had found a source of unlimited free meals, now turn critical. They are of course completely literalminded. They are expecting bread that will give them physical nourishment, as it had done in the miracle. And now they turn their literal-minded attention to the man who provided that bread. After all, they know all about him, the son of the carpenter Joseph — the same attitude that drew from Jesus the remark that a prophet is not received in his own country and prevented the use of his miraculous powers.
Only faith can clear the mind
Jesus is here just as uncompromising: they will only be able to receive this bread if the Father gives them the understanding and perception to discover the secret of this bread. In other words it is only through the gift of faith that they will be able to accept this bread from heaven. "Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me." It is only faith that can clear the mind of literalism, and give the mind and heart the power of penetrating the clouds of appearance to the living reality beyond.
Without this spiritual eye, without this gift from the Father it would be impossible to see beyond the very physical and down to earth that Jesus uses. He is the living bread which came down from heaven, and this bread is his flesh `Sarx' — the sacrificial flesh offered for the life of the World. For the literal-minded listeners this was impossible to accept, indeed it must have revolted them: "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" And Jesus comes back at them. "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life." Without this gift from the Father it must surely seemed madness.
With faith in the Eucharist we may legitimately take leave for a few moments of this vivid scene of Jesus surrounded by an increasingly intolerant audience, and place ourselves with other Christians at the eucharistic celebration which has continued from that time until our own day. The flesh and blood of Christ offered for our own lives look like bread and wine. This is the "living bread," the bread of life, it has the power to give life. It is the food which nourishes us and gives us the strength to make our pilgrimage to eternal life. So we must now consider what is the life, what is this strength which can carry us through to eternal life.
The final words of the reading from Paul to the Ephesians will be found to contain the answer: Elijah walked in the strength given by his heaven sent bread, and the Christian, nourished by the Eucharist, will walk in love in the spirit of Christ the victim of Calvary. Faith brings to the Christian, celebrating the Eucharist with his fellows, the realization that here is Jesus, ;n the flesh offered for the evil of the world — "This is my body to be given up for you.'
The first step in the Christian's walk is the acknowledgement that he is in the presence and company of the one sacrificed on Calvary. But that is only the first step, the Christian may not linger there, lost though he may be in admiration. He must start walking; take and eat, or, as the angel said to Elijah, "Arise and eat." The Christian may not remain separated from the one he admires; he must be identified with him, and such an identification can only be brought about by love "walk in love."
Sharing through eating bread
To state this truth in theological terms, St Thomas Aquinas says that the reality of this Sacrament, the reality of the real presence of Christ, is the fire of love. In other words the Christian in receiving this heavenly food receives, not simply the power to love, but the actual love, which unites the Father and the Son. He is given the same mind, the same will as Jesus; he thinks the same thoughts, he desires the same ultimate good, he has the mind and will of Jesus. This is what the union of Love means, and in the light of that it is clear that the Christian in eating this bread begins to share in the infinite strength of God made man. He can walk to the end of his days in the strength of this food.
Paul gives some characteristic displays of this strength. Put away bitterness, wrath, anger, clamour, slander, and on the contrary be kind and tender hearted to one another and break down any personal barriers by being forgiving. In the violent world in which we live such attitudes may seem to lack strength, indeed to be characteristic of a type of weakness.
But if we consider a person in the fresh flower of his maturity when all his passions and emotions are in full vigour, we may get an impression of strength of character when he suppresses anger and bitterness in the face of insults and injustices. Jesus exercised his greater strength when he went to the sacrifice with the meakness of a lamb.