Spirituality of the Readings
Caring for Us
The story told in the First Reading was in the land ruled by Queen Jezebel. The prophet Elijah had just come from a dangerous showdown with 450 prophets of the god called Baal.* The God of Israel easily won this encounter, and Elijah progressed into doing great violence against the surviving prophets. Queen Jezebel was understandably enraged and sent a message that she would do the same thing to Elijah and more within that same day.
The prophet, frightened, exhausted and dispirited—especially when he came back to find the Israelites themselves being unfaithful to the only true God—became depressed, in spite of his great triumph. He prayed to God to give immediate death to his worthless self. Then he went to sleep, as depressed people will sometimes do. He lay under a broom tree.**
God could have been harsh to Elijah because of such a despondent prayer. But instead, a quiet touch from God’s angel awakened him. The angel whispered, “get up and eat.” “There at his head was a hearth cake and a jug of water.”
Elijah did eat and drink, but then he settled right back to sleep again. The angel whispered tenderly, “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!” Elijah did this and was strengthened. Then he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God.
In this we are witnessing a mother’s care, giving food to her discouraged, grumpy child.
The other readings are all about God’s kindness too, his goodness even in small things. The Responsorial Psalm invites us to share in it: “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord. … I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.”
In the Gospel, Jesus too offers nourishment, this time provisions for a very long journey indeed: eternal life. The people listening (called “the Jews” by John,) will not have a bit of it. They argue among themselves, ridiculing his silly offer of miraculous food. They “murmur” that they knew his parents, and this made him just a local boy acting crazy. Jesus ordered them to stop grousing and listen. He made the same comparison that we saw last week, between the manna that came down from the sky, and himself, “the living bread that came down from heaven.”
Jesus as living bread is a bit difficult to understand. But leave that aside for a moment and just concentrate on the deliberate kindness God shows to his people: feeding them, giving them drink, pursuing them again and again in order to offer the greatest gift of all, God’s sacrificial love for them. God followed them quietly, gently.
How can we respond? Receiving the living bread in Communion is a beginning. Reflecting on the mellowness of God is another. And simply slowing down, stopping our running away and instead letting the Lord find us. God’s kindhearted, tough love is quite worth the struggle. God is the one who will send us into the world (if he can catch us!).
Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma (Eph 5:1).
* Elijah himself had arranged a contest between the god of Ahab, called Baal, and the one true God (the word Baal is often pronounced to rhyme with the word “pale.”). He had the Baal prophets arrange a sacrifice for the burning of a young bull, but he would not allow them to light the fire. Baal himself should do this. They agreed and for much of the day they carried on with incantations, calling out to their god, hopping around, and even slashing themselves with swords, but nothing at all happened. “There was not a sound; no one answered, and no one was listening,” scripture says (I Kings 18:29).
Elijah taunted them with the famous lines, “Call louder, for he is a god and may be meditating, or may have retired, or may be on a journey. Perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” (Or as a few scholars speculate, maybe he has “turned aside” to relieve himself [see here.]) Elijah then arranged a similar sacrifice to the God of Israel. He was so sure of God that he doused the wood with jar after jar of water. Then, after a short prayer, the wood burst into flames (I Kings 18:21-40). The people threw themselves to the ground and worshipped the God of Israel (I Kings 21: 39).
**Broom tree: a tall hedge that desert people used to shield themselves from the sun in the day
and the wind at night,
John Foley, SJ
**From Saint Louis University