Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Strength for the Journey: 19th Sunday in OT

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, the hero Frodo, a hobbit or “Halfling”, while on his long and arduous journey through the land of shadows governed by the Satan-figure Sauron, finds sustenance in lembas, the elven-bread given to him by Galadriel the elven-queen in Lothlorien, the mystic land of the Elves.  Each loaf of lembas is round and flat and tastes slightly of honey, and strengthens a man enough for a day’s journey.  While wandering with his faithful companion Samwise Gamgee in a land of monsters, demons, goblins, and giant spiders, Frodo stays alive on the sweetness of the elf-bread that breathes the odor of the golden woods and the beauty of the elf-queen.

Tolkien, I found out late in life, was a devout Catholic, and since my conversion in 2001 I suddenly realized what every Catholic reader always immediately saw: the lembas is the Eucharist of Middle-Earth.  (Just as every race in LOTR is a religious denomination: High Elves=English Catholics; Green Elves=Irish Catholics; Men of Gondor=High Anglicans; Rohirrim=American Evangelicals; Hobbits=barely practicing Englishmen; Dwarves=Jews).  

Be that as it may, this mystic bread that strengthens one for the journey through the land of darkness typifies the Eucharistic bread in the Readings for this weekend.  

Our First Reading concerns the supernatural bread that strengthened Elijah for his journey to Horeb:

Reading 1: 1 Kgs 19:4-8
Elijah went a day's journey into the desert,
until he came to a broom tree and sat beneath it.
He prayed for death saying:
"This is enough, O LORD!
Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers."
He lay down and fell asleep under the broom tree,
but then an angel touched him and ordered him to get up and eat.
Elijah looked and there at his head was a hearth cake
and a jug of water.
After he ate and drank, he lay down again,
but the angel of the LORD came back a second time,
touched him, and ordered,
"Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!"
He got up, ate, and drank;
then strengthened by that food,
he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb.

Elijah is an absolutely fascinating figure of salvation history, and he—along with Elisha—could be considered the main protagonists in the Books of Kings, which—despite their name—actually have at their center the narratives of the two greatest prophets of Israel, in 1 Kings 17—2 Kings 13.  Ironically, for a composition so focused on royal reigns, it is the ministries of the prophets Elijah and Elisha that provide hope during the otherwise dismal account of the decline of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. This may be one reason the Jewish tradition places the books of Kings among the “Former Prophets”. The structural center point of the whole narrative is the transition from Elijah to Elisha (2 Kings 2), a narrative that is not incorporated into the account of the reign of any king. 
Immediately preceding our Reading, Elijah won a great victory over the prophets of Baal by calling down fire upon his sacrifice at Mt. Carmel.  This provoked a revival of true worship among the Israelites, who seized the prophets of Baal and slew them.  King Ahab’s wife Jezebel, however, was not pleased with the slaughter of her god’s prophets, and Elijah is forced to flee for his life into the territory of Judah, then farther south into the Sinai Peninsula, to Mount Horeb (= Sinai) (1 Kings 19). There, like Moses before him, he speaks with God and receives a commission to anoint a new generation of leadership for Israel and Syria. Shortly thereafter, he selects Elisha as his disciple, who will ultimately be his prophetic successor (1 Kings 20; cf. 2 Kings 2). 

In our Reading, Elijah is on his way to Horeb, where he will encounter God, not in a whirlwind, earthquake, or fire, but in a “still small voice”, to use the classic King James Versions elegant translation.  But here in our Reading, we find him tired, discouraged, and pleading for death.  How ironic that he is in this state, so soon after presiding over one of the most dramatic and publically-witnessed miracles in the Bible!  But this only shows that physical miracles do not always or necessarily bring about the revival of holiness and happiness that we so desire.  Often we think, “If only a miracle would happen, then people would convert, the Church would grow, and society would right itself.”  But there have been times and places in history where miracles were poured out.  Elijah and Elisha performed many of them, yet Northern Israel ultimately did not return to God.  Likewise our Lord had no lack of miracles, yet did not convince a majority of his contemporaries that he was who he claimed to be.  

Elijah—exhausted, disheartened, and desirous of death—is a symbol of the experience of many clergy, religious, catechists, evangelists, and others who labor in the Church, experience “success” but then also live to see that “success” evaporate.  Francis Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan was the highly successful archbishop of Saigon, who lived to see the communists capture his city and spent 13 years in solitary confinement while all his apostolic works were brutally crushed.  Cardinal Thuan rights that God lets these things happen, so that we will learn to love God above the works of God.  Sometimes this is a difficult lesson for those of us in ministry to learn.  

Be that as it may, God does not consent to Elijah’s prayer for death.  Instead, he sends an angel, who cares for his physical needs by providing him food and drink.  And that supernatural bread gives Elijah the strength for the month-long journey to Horeb, presumably one of the mountains on the south end of the Sinai Peninsula.  

Elijah has to be prodded to eat the supernatural food, which reminds us of the spiritual lethargy we so often experience.  Although he know intellectually that the Eucharist is the source of our strengthen, nonetheless, Holy Mother Church has to prod us with her commandments to make sure we get to Mass at least once a week, on the Lord’s Day.  But Holy Mother Church knows the “journey will be too much for us”—i.e. we will not survive spiritually through the hardships, trials, and temptations of daily life—unless we strengthen ourselves regularly with the Bread from Heaven.

Our Responsorial Psalm is: Ps 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9:

R. (9a) Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall be ever in my mouth.
Let my soul glory in the LORD;
the lowly will hear me and be glad.
R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
Glorify the LORD with me,
Let us together extol his name.
I sought the LORD, and he answered me
And delivered me from all my fears.
R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
Look to him that you may be radiant with joy.
And your faces may not blush with shame.
When the afflicted man called out, the LORD heard,
And from all his distress he saved him.
R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
The angel of the LORD encamps
around those who fear him and delivers them.
Taste and see how good the LORD is;
blessed the man who takes refuge in him.
R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.

This beautiful Psalm, a todah or Thanksgiving psalm, lends itself especially well to the context of the Eucharistic liturgy, and is one of my personal favorites.  The Hebrew superscription of this song says it was written by David in thanksgiving after he escaped from the possibly lethal situation of being in the court of Abimelech, the Philistine king, who was near being persuaded by his courtiers to execute David for being a potential threat.  The psalm was written to be sung while celebrating the todah or thanksgiving sacrifice at the Temple, a joyous occasion involving the consumption of an entire sacrificial animal together with many delectable baked goods.  “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord” was, in the original context, and invitation to come forward and get a serving of food from the sacrificial animal and the consecrated breads.  While eating the tasty foods of the Thanksgiving sacrifice, the ancient Israelite observer could take them as tangible signs of God’s goodness toward those who worship him.  Thus, “taste and see the goodness of the LORD.” 

This Sunday, we gather at Mass to “seek the LORD,” to “fear [=worship] Him,” to “cry out” to him in the state of our “affliction,” and to “take refuge in him” for a little while from our enemies in the world.  The promise of the Psalm is that, if we partake of the Eucharist in faith, it will be the foretaste of God’s good plan to save us from all our enemies and afflictions, and bring us into his kingdom forever.  

Reading 2 Eph 4:30—5:2
Brothers and sisters:
Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God,
with which you were sealed for the day of redemption.
All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling
must be removed from you, along with all malice.
And be kind to one another, compassionate,
forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.

So 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.

This Reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians functions in this Sunday’s Mass to remind us, first of all, of the dispositions that should characterize our Eucharistic participation.  All “bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling must be removed from” us, “along with all malice.”  This means we should make every effort, before receiving the Eucharist, to wash our hearts of all hatred, hope for revenge, and bitterness that we may harbor in our hearts against family members, church officials, co-workers, supervisors, politicians, etc.  While not excusing or making light of the injuries or evils they may have done to us or to others, nevertheless we must attempt—drawing on the power of the Holy Spirit who lives in us—to forgive them at least so far as it depends upon us (even if this forgiveness remains always merely a potentiality since there is never repentance on their part that would actualize the forgiveness) and leave their judgment up to God, who is a better and wiser judge than us.  In the meantime, we must hide ourselves in the Sacred Heart of Jesus and find some peace there for ourselves rather than being eaten up with our own anger over evils sometimes truly suffered, and sometimes only imagined. 

Paul goes on to describe Christ’s work in sacrificial language: Jesus is a “sacrificial offering for a fragrant aroma”—here using the diction of the so-called “priestly” sections of the Pentatuech, that like to speak of the ruakh nakhôakh, the “pleasing aroma” of the sacrificial liturgy.  The Eucharist is quintessentially the place where we experience Christ as our sacrifice, and this demands of us that we be people of love, who “live in love” toward one another.  After all, the Eucharist is the sacrament of love, that expresses and actualizes the bond of love that unites all of us who believe in Jesus Christ and his Body, which is the Church.  Living a life of hatred but partaking of the Eucharist is a contradiction and oxymoron, as well as a liturgical violation and even a profanation.

One can be rightly upset by the way that, in our own day, there is so little effort at Eucharistic discipline, such that persons who publically defy the teaching of Church partake of the Eucharist proudly, as if by that act they have attained legitimation from God for their perverse opinions or lifestyle.  At the same time, God does not put most of us in a position to critique the leadership of his Church, and the only authority that we ourselves have in Eucharistic discipline is whether to allow ourselves to partake or not.  Thus, to allow ourselves to live a life of self-indulgence and self–interest, while harboring bitterness in our hearts towards others in our physical or spiritual families, and still partake of the Eucharist, causes us also to sin against the Body and Blood of the Lord (1 Cor 11:27).  So let’s make a good confession this week and partake in a state of peace and grace. 

Our Gospel is John 6:41-51:

The Jews murmured about Jesus because he said,
"I am the bread that came down from heaven, "
and they said,
"Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph?
Do we not know his father and mother?
Then how can he say,
'I have come down from heaven'?"
Jesus answered and said to them,
"Stop murmuring among yourselves.
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him,
and I will raise him on the last day.
It is written in the prophets:
They shall all be taught by God.
Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.
Not that anyone has seen the Father
except the one who is from God;
he has seen the Father.
Amen, amen, I say to you,
whoever believes has eternal life.
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."

This Gospel Reading is full of allusions to the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, during the time that God fed them with the manna.  John uses the uncommon Greek word gogguzo, “to murmur”, to refer to the grumblings of the crowds against Jesus.  This same word, or its variants (e.g. diagogguzo), are used in Exodus 16, Numbers 11–17 and elsewhere to describing the “murmurings” of the people of Israel in the desert when they were dissatisfied with the manna and God’s other provisions in the wilderness.  History is repeating itself.  Israel was unimpressed by the manna in the wilderness, and 1500 years later, their descendants are unimpressed with God’s Bread from Heaven, Jesus Christ. 

Jesus goes on to speak of “seeing the Father,” something Moses never did, for he only saw God’s back.  So Jesus is superior to Moses.

Jesus likens his flesh to the manna that fell from heaven; thus, he is the “living bread which came down from heaven.”  But Jesus is more and better than the manna, too, because the manna did not confer eternal life.  The only food that conferred eternal life was the fruit of the tree of life (Gen 3:22), but Jesus’ flesh is the equivalent of that fruit, too: “one may eat of it and not die … whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

Finally, lest anyone think that Jesus was just using metaphors to speak of himself and his “spiritual” ministry, he says, “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  This is true in two senses: his flesh will be given sacramentally at the Last Supper (=institution of the Eucharist) and physically at the cross, two events united as one liturgy through which the New Covenant will come into existence. 

There are so many ways that we can draw application from this passage, but one suggestive way is to focus on the sin of ingratitude, “murmuring.”  In the Jewish tradition, this is a great sin, and Jews attribute to it the cause of the destruction of both the First and Second Temple.  Psalm 95, with which the Church starts most days with Lauds/Morning Prayer, warns us to avoid the ungrateful attitude of the wilderness generation that “murmured” continually against God and Moses.  Even in the New Covenant, this can be our downfall.  Though God is good and sends everything—even the sufferings—for the sake of our growth in love and holiness, nonetheless we can be caught in an attitude of ingratitude for God’s good gifts.  Only ten years into the post-apostolic age, Ignatius of Antioch warns against false Christians who “reject the good gift of God” and ungratefully refuse to participate in the Eucharist, due to their lack of faith.  Let us not be like that.  Let us not harp and complain because we lack this or that material blessing that we would like to have, or because God doesn’t govern the world or the Church as we would prefer.  Let us approach the Eucharist this Sunday with the simplicity of grateful children, happy to receive their God in the humble form of bread.

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