Elijah ‘asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”’ And he lay down under a tree and went to sleep. It’s a startling image – a great prophet praying for death. It’s even more startling when you consider what happens immediately before this in the Bible. We might expect to read of abject failure or defeat, or some terrible calamity having befallen him, leaving Elijah so miserable that he wanted to die. But in fact, the preceding chapter is quite an amusing account of prophetic derring-do, in which Elijah challenges 450 prophets of the pagan deity Baal to a contest, to see whose god was true. His solitary prayer to the God of Abraham achieved what the combined prayers to Baal of his 450 devotees did not, drawing down fire on a sacrificial offering of a bull. The true God was vindicated, Elijah was triumphant, and the 450 prophets of the false god were slaughtered.
Unluckily for Elijah, while his actions might have brought glory to the God of Israel, they infuriated the Queen, Jezebel, who sent word that she would have him killed. And so, Elijah went, as it were, ‘on the run’. And so starts today’s first reading, with him going a day’s journey into the wilderness, and giving up. His depressed desire for death might seem shocking to hear about in the Bible, even though we know all too well how tragically real that feeling can be for many people.
If we read on beyond Elijah’s declaration that he has had enough, we see how gently the Lord reaches out to him. An angel wakes him, and encourages him to eat and drink, and somehow a cake and a jar of water have appeared at his head. He does so, but goes back to sleep. The angel touches him again and says, ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ It is such a beautiful and tender moment. God has recognised Elijah’s utter exhaustion and despondency, but he doesn’t chastise him for his self-pity. Instead, he draws near to Elijah and offers him comfort through the ministry of an angel. It is as it he is saying: ‘You need to continue your journey, but you won’t be able to without me. You need to continue, but you won’t be able unless you allow me to nourish and sustain you. So eat and drink what I have provided for you, and you will be strengthened. Allow me to fill you, to strengthen you and sustain you’…. Elijah did just that. He ate and drank what the Lord had provided. Then, the reading says, ‘he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mountain of God’. Truly, the Lord had provided viaticum – food for the journey – a journey that reached its fulfilment in Elijah encountering the Lord himself, as a sound of sheer silence.
To Elijah, God sent an angel and provided food and drink. But to those who read the Gospel, the message and the nourishment are provided by God himself – for Jesus is both God’s Word and God’s food. ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven’ and ‘the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’
He gives his flesh… offering it for the redemption of humanity through his death on the Cross, and giving it for the life of humanity under the appearance of bread. Just as the bread and wine are transformed as the priest gives thanks at the altar, so too are we called to be transformed when we encounter him. As one early Christian writer put it: ‘Our palate will put up with no other taste when it has tasted the good Word of God, and his flesh, and the bread that comes down from heaven. Because he tastes so sweet and so delightful, all other flavours will seem harsh and bitter.’
A deep encounter with the Bread of Life changes everything. If only, then, we could encounter him more deeply, and taste his sweetness more fully, how different the world would be! Maybe that should be our prayer today, that we will allow the Lord to feed us, that we may taste and see his goodness. We would do well to take the advice of St Gregory the Great, who said: ‘Touch the food of life with the taste buds of your heart, so that trying it may make you capable of loving its sweetness.’
The words I imagined the Lord whispering to Elijah could just as easily be the words that Jesus would whisper to us today as we gather to celebrate the Eucharist: ‘You need to continue your journey, but you won’t be able to without me. You need to continue, but you won’t be able unless you allow me to nourish and sustain you. So eat and drink what I have provided for you, and you will be strengthened. Allow me to fill you, to strengthen you and sustain you’.
Jesus offers himself to heal all that is broken in us, to supply all that is lacking in us, to satisfy every hunger in us and to slake every thirst in us. In the Eucharist, ‘the medicine of immortality’, Jesus offers himself as balm to cure every ailment, complex or syndrome that causes us to live lesser lives than we were made to live, so that we may, like Elijah, go in the strength of that food to the mountain of God. He offers us food for the journey, to keep us safe for eternal life. How blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb!
8 August 2021