Fire & Bread for the Journey

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time


This weekend the prophet Elijah is channeling my sentiments. Fresh from the triumphant spectacle on Mount Carmel where in the sight of the whole nation, of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, of 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah who eat at the queen’s table, the Lord God proved his holiness by sending down fire from the sky in answer to the prayer of his servant Elijah devouring a holocaust of a young bull prepared by him and laid upon wood arranged on a new altar of 12 stones over which water was poured three times it overflowed into the trench dug around it. The prophets of Baal had spent all morning gashing themselves and calling on their god who gave no answer nor any indication anyone was even listening. And when fire came down upon the altar Elijah had built and reduced the holocaust to ashes, all the people watching fell to the ground and worshiped the Lord. And Elijah ordered all the prophets of Baal to be seized and executed, enraging the queen who was now breathing fury down his neck sending him fleeing into the wilderness where he sat under a broom tree and prayed for death. “This is enough, O Lord! Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”

There is much in this passage we know nothing about, the deep anguish that Elijah experienced causing him to call on God in desperation. “Take my life!” he says. It could be he was just being overdramatic. But picture Elijah standing before the whole nation and all the prophets of Baal calling on God to answer his prayer with fire. What a rush it must have given him when fire did come down. If he had not been certain of it before, he knew now that God was with him. At his pleading God had answered with fire! And when it was all over and everyone came down the mountain, the people soon forgot what God had done. And when the queen threatened his life, Elijah soon forgot what he had witnessed God do right before his own eyes upon the mountain.

It’s only been a month, 34/35 days to be exact, when Bishop Knestout poured holy chrism upon this new altar and lit a brazier that sent a column of fragrant incense billowing to the ceiling, marking with us the completion of a 10-year building project that saw a fair measure of challenge, resistance, and disbelief and showed us beyond doubt that the Holy Spirit was present and active. And after we all figuratively came down the mountain, we just as soon forgot what we witnessed God do right before our own eyes. We went right back to grumbling and complaining about our troubles, and how the world was falling to pieces, and COVID had stolen 2 years of our lives. The prophet Elijah felt trapped between his own hunger and exhaustion and everyone else’s rage and discontent that he lost his way and was ready to throw in the towel. How bad did it get that he did not fear to pray for death? How do we find the strength we need when we come to the end of our rope? God let Elijah recover, then nourished him with food for the journey that they would meet on yet another mountain.

When Elijah was drained and starved beyond even his own ability to manage, he prayed for God to end his misery. But clearly God does not want us to be overcome with despair. God sent an angel to guide him through that difficult time, allowing him physical rest and bodily nourishment to revive him and help him regain balance and purpose. And when he had recovered, Elijah returned to the work entrusted to him to proclaim to Israel God’s invitation to mercy and reconciliation. If the prophet was to bring nourishment and healing to God’s people, he himself had first to be nourished and healed. If he was to offer God’s life, he had first to bear God’s life within himself.

St. Paul reminds his fellow laborers in the vineyard of the Lord to remove from their own hearts all bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, reviling, and malice, and instead to be kind, compassionate, and forgiving as God has shown us forgiveness in Christ. If we are to care for the spiritual welfare of others, we cannot neglect our own. “Be imitators of God … and live in love.” Our standard and guide is Jesus Christ. After his example, we are to offer ourselves to God in sacrifice.

In today’s gospel reading Jesus continues his discussion with the crowd that had followed him to the other side of the Sea of Galilee after having their fill of bread. Jesus acknowledged their hunger and offered them even better food than they would ask for themselves, nourishment for an even deeper hunger which they had yet to recognize. Jesus makes very little progress today though. His listeners were stuck on his claim that he was Bread come down from heaven. They know his family. How can he say he came down from heaven? Jesus wanted to tell them that this Bread had power to give eternal life. But they weren’t ready to hear that yet. The process would take time and encounter resistance, disbelief, anger, and rejection. But Jesus is ever patient and unyielding. He reminds us that it is the Father himself who draws anyone to the Son, for the Son to nourish them and give them life. No one can desire what Jesus offers before the Father invites. God alone calls us on the journey to faith. And unless the Father first invites, we will not be drawn to encounter the Son.

“Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.” If we can come to faith simply by our desiring it, either God calls everyone without distinction or faith requires no initiative from God at all. Jesus assures us that the Father first draws to the Son whoever he chooses. And no one can respond to an invitation that they had not first received. It appears from the way this whole discussion is going between Jesus and the crowd that they are all resistant and unbelieving. But the gift of faith is already at work within them. Jesus the Living Bread is already nourishing those the Father calls. In response we might stumble upon our need for things to always make sense. But faith is a conviction above all not easily explained because language limits our ability to convey what our senses grasp. Remember how Jesus used parables to tell us about the kingdom of God? He had to explain eternal truths using familiar images in a limited language we could grasp. Of course, the process would take time and would encounter resistance, disbelief, anger, and rejection. The crowd still failed to grasp what he was saying that he is Bread come down from heaven, that all who eat this Bread will have eternal life, and that this Bread is his flesh for the life of the world. We hear the same teaching today and we struggle to make sense of it. But it is God alone who calls us on the journey of faith. And God alone gives the gift of faith.

Jesus assures us, “Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.” If we truly hunger for faith, we need only ask. And the God who sent fire at Elijah’s pleading alone provides the very Bread of life we will need for the journey.

Rolo B Castillo © 2021