19th Sunday in Ordinary time

Perhaps you’re aware that I’m a keen walker and general outdoor enthusiast. This hobby of mine has been exploited a number of times by some lovely people who have asked me to be a guide for their hikes; most times I have agreed to their request, because… why not? I’m a nice chap – I’m always happy to help those in need, particularly when it involves something within my personal range of interest. Anyway, there’s one massive and distinctive difference between teenage ramblers and more mature walkers: the latter eat when they stop for a break. Teenagers, however, tend to munch virtually all the time they’re walking. And that certainly keeps my dog, who always accompanies me on walks, on his toes! The nearly constant rustle of wrappers being ripped open makes my dog think there’s food coming his way (it isn’t); or he desperately tries to pick up crumbs that have fallen onto the ground – utterly fruitless attempts! Jokes aside, I’m quite impressed by the sheer amount of food consumed by teenagers on a hike. To make it funnier, whenever there’s a stop, even a really, really short one, teenagers are always able to pull even more food out of their rucksacks. Extraordinary! I’m astonished because I can walk for miles and miles and hours and hours without eating anything, and still have only a couple of sandwiches at lunchtime. All of which makes me a bit like the prophet Elijah from today’s first reading.

Urged by the angel: ‘Get up and eat, or the journey will be too long for you,’ he did as he was told and ‘strengthened by that food he walked for forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.’ That was a remarkable achievement! Or it would have been, were we to take the story literally. In fact, there’s much more in this episode of the prophet’s life; and our own life experience may be mirrored in his story. So, let’s take a closer look.

We meet the prophet when he’s burned out and totally spent: spiritually, mentally and probably physically. So much so that he lies under a bush and asks God to finish him off; the prophet feels so low that he is experiencing suicidal thoughts. It’s the end result of his long-lasting battle against his adversaries. I think most of us have had the experience of a similar moment in life when all our efforts seemed to be in vain; all the battles had been lost; all the plans had come to nothing, and all the dreams were shattered. It’s a hard place to be in, and even harder to deal with because there’s no obvious way out, no glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, no hope.

Let’s go back to the prophet Elijah, lying under a bush and wishing to die. ‘The angel of the Lord’ wakes him up and urges him to eat and drink in preparation for a long journey. An angel is commonly regarded as a supernatural creature of a spiritual nature. However, the original meaning of the word is a messenger. In that respect everyone can be an angel, someone who comes forward with a helping hand. Secondly, as we know, food can often boost our mood. There’s even a saying in Polish: a hungry man is an angry man. In our society, offering refreshments to a visitor is pretty much a common occurrence. With this sort of angelic help of earthly provision, we can be either on the giving or receiving end. There are plenty of angels around us, and at the same time, each one of us is one of them.

Back to the prophet Elijah, now sated and in a slightly better mood; a mood good enough to leave the bush behind and to undertake a journey of ‘forty days and forty nights’ to the mountain of God. In the Bible, the number 40 applied to a period of time symbolises a time of testing or tribulation or trial. For example, the Israelites travelled through the desert for forty years; Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days and nights. But the time of such trial or tribulation leads ultimately to a much better outcome than the situation at the start of it. It’s not tribulation for its own sake but to better the person in question. So, for the prophet Elijah the symbolic journey of ‘forty days and forty nights’ is far more important on a spiritual, internal level than the actual mileage covered. He managed to make it to his destination ‘strengthened by that food’ he ate and drank. This story of the prophet Elijah is presented in the context of the gospel reading, where Jesus calls himself ‘the living bread’ and argues that ‘anyone who eats this bread will live forever.’ In that context the food and drink that strengthened the prophet Elijah for his spiritual journey gets a new dimension. Jesus is the real food and drink that offers us new hope and gives us the strength to make the efforts required to solve our problems. And we have access to such powerful refreshment every time we receive Holy Communion – the real Body and Blood of Christ, the living Lord. For a Catholic, attending Sunday Mass is a moral duty. But there’s much, much more to that than fulfilling your religious obligation: you encounter Jesus himself. Jesus, who can lead you through any hardship you experience. Or who will send you to be an angel to people in need.