by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Lord”, Elijah said, “I’ve had enough. Take my life, I’m no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down and went to sleep. But an angel touched him and said: “Get up and eat.” He looked round, and there at his head was a scone baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. 1 Kings 19, 4-8
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever…” John 6, 41-51
Every now and then we see and hear TV interviews with artists and musicians. Several times I’ve heard these people tell how, as children, they were so captivated by a visit to a gallery or a musical performance that they developed on the spot a passion to paint or perform in imitation of the artist or musician whose skill they had experienced. They speak of being consumed by what they had consumed in the gallery or concert hall. We have all seen or met people in whom a passion for what they undertake is so strong that it becomes the focus of their lives.
In today’s gospel reading, we hear Jesus inviting us to let ourselves be consumed by “the bread of life” which he offers us to eat. That, in summary, is John’s theology of Eucharist: We are invited to be consumed by the Christ we receive in the Eucharistic bread, and be, in turn, the bread of compassion, mercy and kindness for everyone we encounter each day of our lives. John’s theology of Eucharist is unique – unique in its audacity and unique in its context of the account of the feeding of the five thousand. The other three Gospels present Eucharist in the context of the Last Supper.
Last Sunday’s story from Exodus of how the grumbling Israelites in the desert were fed with manna and this week’s story of a complaining Elijah being fed twice with scones foreshadow today’s graphic account of Jesus offering himself to the critical, complaining, disbelieving crowd as bread that will nourish them eternally. We know the story of the Israelites’ reluctance to eat the “crap” (manna) secreted by insects, nourishing though it was. Effectively, it saved their lives. The Elijah of today’s first reading was on the run. He was the target of Queen Jezebel’s anger and vengeance because he had destroyed her prophets of Baal. He feared for his life. Physically and emotionally exhausted from fleeing, he flopped down under a broom tree and asked God to end his life. God had other ideas and sent an angel to him with scones and water to nourish him for his long journey to the safety of Mt Horeb, the mountain of God.
This is a powerful story because of the way in which it demonstrates how God reaches out to those who are “down on their uppers”. Elijah was at the end of his tether, completely dispirited, deflated and defeated. God reached out to him “with bread”. These are two very significant words. The word for “with” in Latin is cum, and the word for “bread” is panis. Taken together (cum panis), they give us the English word “companion”. This story from the first book of Kings is the storyteller’s way of explaining how God’s action was effectively offering Elijah strength and companionship, rather than solutions to his problems, in his darkest hour. The message for us is clearly that when we let others know we are with them in their pain, loneliness, grief and depression, they are encouraged to keep on keeping on. God’s angel did not come to Elijah with news that Jezebel would be taken out, but with the promise that God would be his companion to walk beside him through whatever problems came his way.
And isn’t that the message of today’s gospel, where Jesus offers himself to companion us through the tough experiences of our lives, and challenges us to do likewise to all whom we encounter. We come to know Jesus in the breaking of bread at the Eucharist, and it’s in “the breaking of bread” around the tables of our homes that we come to know and support others. The greatest hospitality, intimacy and friendship we can extend to others is to invite them to share a meal in the place we call home.
If you can picture Elijah in the depths of depression, collapsed under a broom tree, you might even be able to imagine him, after he had been revived by two scones and two jars of water, praying something like:
“Abide with me; fast falls the eventide; The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide; When other helpers fail and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.”
This hymn was written by Anglican pastor, Henry Lyte, in a bout of depression not long before he died. I suspect Lyte would have resonated with Elijah.
The Eucharist is Jesus’ clearest sign that God is always with us. Implicit in that sign is that we, too, are to be companions to one another, and to everyone with whom we engage, especially those most in need. For us, a further implication of that is to call to mind those who might be encouraged by some act of companionship as we step out from the community with whom we celebrate our Sunday Eucharist. There is surely some neighbour, colleague or friend whom we could boost with a simple phone call. There are others in hospital who might be cheered by a visit. There are beggars on our streets who would get as much lift from a brief conversation as from a donation. There may be others, even under the same roof as ours, who are angry, isolated and forgotten and can be lifted by a word of acknowledgement. There may be others we know to be struggling and for whom a casserole would be a wonderful and wordless message of recognition and hope.
If we have learned the real message of today’s readings, we will realise that we have been taught not to rush in with solutions, but, rather, to be present to others in their need, being with them as companions on our journey together through life. That, of course, depends on our belief in Jesus when he says: “I am the bread of life…the bread I give is my flesh, for the life of the world.”