Updated: Sep 6, 2021
Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]
In our first reading today, we catch a glimpse of a very pivotal figure in the story of Israel in a moment of weakness: we witness the great prophet Elijah deep in the desert praying for death beneath a broom tree.
But before we enter into this scene, it helps to know a bit more about him. Elijah is one of most significant persons in the entire Old Testament. First of all, his name immediately sets him apart.
You already know how names can be quite revealing. For example: Adam comes from the Hebrew adamah, which means earth or soil; Abraham means father of many; Israel means the one who wrestles with God; Moses means to pull or draw out, as he was drawn out of the river as an infant and at the Red Sea as a grown adult; Saul means great one; David, the beloved one; Peter means rock; Immanuel means God is with us; Jesus means God saves; and so on.
All of these names are true descriptors of those who bore them in the Bible. Their lives could actually be summarized by their names. The same is true with Elijah. Time and again he'll live up to his name and exhibit an unwavering fidelity to the Lord before any other gods, even if he's the only one left to worship the Lord.
The name Elijah means My God is Yahweh. El is a shortening of Elohim, meaning God. Eli means my God (you may remember that moment on the Cross when Jesus cried out, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" meaning, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?). Jah, or rather Yah, is short for Yahweh, the Name for God in the Old Testament. Now, God’s Name was never pronounced, and so when Elijah’s name is translated, it's often simply translated as My God is the Lord, or The Lord is my God.
Elijah lived during the reign of King Ahab who was likely the seventh King of Israel, after the Judah had seceded from Israel following the death of Solomon the Wise. The united nation of Israel in the north and Judah in the south had lasted only as long as the dynasty of David and his son Solomon; those were the golden years of Israel. After Solomon's death, Israel and Judah were divided, never to reunite again. In time, the northern kingdom would be annihilated and ten of the tribes would be lost forever, with only Judah and Benjamin remaining. Benjamin would be absorbed into Judah. Hence the name Judaea as the name for the region later; Judaeans as the inhabitants, or Jews.
Ahab’s reign began about sixty years after the death of Solomon. Ahab had taken for his wife a foreign queen whose name was Jezebel. If you've ever heard that name spoken of disparagingly, this is where that name comes from.
Jezebel was the daughter of Ethbaal, the king of the Sidonians. Ahab was influenced by Jezebel to worship her gods: Baal and Asherah. In punishment for this gross violation of the Covenant, God sent Elijah to announce a great drought, which would suffocate Israel for three-and-a-half years. This is where Elijah first enters the scene. During this drought, Elijah lived in hiding with the widow of Zarephath and her son.
I like mentioning is ancient names of people and places, because I feel they help us enter into the ancient history with a level of enjoyment akin to that of reading any of the great fantasy classics like Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia.
During that time, Jezebel hunted down all the prophets of the Lord, down to the last man. In their place, she empowered four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal, and four hundred prophets of Asherah, who dined at her table. All true prophets of Yahweh had been wiped out (Order 66, for those who might appreciate the reference; it's from Star Wars, when all of the Jedi were wiped out).
But there was one true prophet left: Elijah.
There’s a climactic scene in the eighteenth chapter of the First Book of Kings—I encourage everyone to read it. It’s the kind of awe-inspiring scene that pre-dates any of the great fantasy classics; even more awesome, as all of it is true world history.
You can imagine the scene: Eight hundred and fifty prophets of false gods who had invaded Israel against the One true God and the last prophet, with the heart of Israel in the balance on Mount Carmel. I’ll let you read the details of that fateful encounter and how it ends yourselves; it’s chapter eighteen of the First Book of Kings.
After that encounter, Jezebul the queen entered into a murderous rage and furiously reinvigorated her hunt for Elijah. In fear, Elijah fled to Beersheba in the land of Judah. That sets the stage for the scene of our first reading today.
After that confrontation at Mount Carmel, Elijah is tired and at his limit. “It is enough,” he says. “Now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am no better than my fathers.” And he lay down and slept under a broom tree, welcoming death.
But it was not his time to die. There was much more left to be done. (Incidentally, we never actually do hear about his death in the entire Bible; at the very end of his ministry, he'll be taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire)
At that moment, an angel touched him and said: “Arise and eat.” And he looked up, and there at his head was a baked cake and a jar of water. He ate and drank… and then he went back to sleep (that's how I often feel after a satisfying meal). So the angel said again: “Arise and eat, else the journey will be too great for you.” Elijah did eat and drink again, and then walked in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Mount Horeb. Some of you may be familiar with the other name for Mount Horeb; namely, Mount Sinai, where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and entered into his Covenant with Israel. Think of that entire journey. Elijah fled the northern kingdom of Israel, traveled south into the kingdom of Judah, and then entered into the desert to journey back to where it all began for Israel: that place of beginnings. It was where he was called to start over and begin again.
What’s the lesson for us? Like Elijah, we may be God’s champions in this day and age. But regardless of our efforts for the sake of the Lord, in the end we can also reach out limit. Like Elijah, we may at times ask our Lord to dismiss us from this world and pray for death. We might ask to be dismissed from our work, our vocations, and our labors. We can lie down, check out, and call it quits.
But if it’s not our time, we must, “Arise and eat, else the journey will be too great for [us]”. Elijah traveled forty days to Mount Sinai, where it all began for the tribes of Israel; bread and water were enough to sustain him. But our destination is much further, and so our food must also be enough to get us there. Our destination ultimately is where our Father dwells. Our home is heaven. And so, we need heavenly food to sustain us for that long journey.
In our gospel today, Jesus says: “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
If you are tired today, or weary, or broken, or discouraged, or at your limit… good. That means you and I are in the right place. "Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest," says the Lord. Here, where it all began for us, where our Covenant with God began, where many of our vocations began (some of you were married before teh altar), we return to the place of beginnings, to begin again. It's here where we are refreshed, and receive the food that will sustain us in the long journey ahead. Here, we eat the bread of life, the flesh of Jesus Christ, in the Eucharist.