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The 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 12, 2018


    
There are very few stories in the Bible that do not, in one way or another, find an echo in our own stories. That’s one of the reasons why the inspired Word of God is not only timeless, but almost always timely.

     Take the prophet Elijah’s story in today’s first reading.  Elijah had had it. He had gone from the heights to the depths.  Literally!  On the top of Mount Carmel God had allowed him to score a stunning victory over a whole army of false prophets, calling down fire from heaven in a dazzling display of power that put the false prophets to shame and ultimately, to death.

      But the victory was short-lived. Elijah’s prophetic finger-pointing incurred the wrath of Queen Jezebel who determined to kill this upstart prophet who was threatening her power and influence. So Elijah found himself running for his life – running into the wilderness, running until he could run no more.  When he collapsed under a broom tree – which is where our reading began today – Elijah wanted to die.  God had abandoned him. There was no hope. “This is enough, Lord, he prayed, “Take away my life.”  The despair Elijah felt was particularly bitter because he knew he had been faithful, and where had his faithfulness gotten him?

      We all wonder about this at times, don’t we?  Wonder about where our faithfulness gets us? Faithfulness certainly seems to be no guarantee of rewards – not in the short run, anyway. I think, for instance, of families having to deal with the unexpected death of a loved one, or of people trying to come to terms with a very dire medical diagnosis, or of people who lose all their earthly belongings in a natural disaster. With God’s grace and the support of family and friends, people who face these huge challenges often do manage to cope, bravely holding onto faith through some dark days and nights but, at times, like Elijah of old, they wonder where their faithfulness has gotten them. Like Elijah, there are times when they come close to collapsing under that tree, wanting it all to be over.

     And how about you?  What’s your ‘Elijah experience’? I’m not talking about the normal bumps and bruises of life – we expect those and can usually take them in stride.  I’m talking about life-altering things: the break-up of a marriage; getting laid off of work with a family to support; having a child turn against you and reject everything you stand for; getting diagnosed with a debilitating illness.  Any of these can land us under the broom tree with Elijah, convinced that we can no longer go on.

      I offer no easy answers here because there aren’t any, but I do have a favorite story from a favorite saint of mine, St. Teresa of Avila, the great Spanish Carmelite nun of the sixteenth century. It’s a story I’ve told before but I tell it again because it can shed some light and bring some hope – and maybe even a smile.  Teresa had a difficult job: she was a reformer. She traveled all over Spain on a totally thankless mission of trying to reform the Carmelite convents which had become quite lax and loose.  Not surprisingly, Teresa was not universally loved by the nuns!  When she would arrive at a local convent for her visit, she was rarely greeted with open arms!  One day, worn out and weary from her travels and travails, Teresa got caught in a storm, complete with thunder, lightning, and torrential rains.  Her carriage overturned and she landed in the mud.  Her ensuing exchange with God went like this:  “Why, Lord, is this happening to me?”  And the Lord said, “Because, Teresa, that’s the way I treat all my friends.”  To which Teresa replied, “No wonder you have so few…!”

     Where do we go with that?  To the same place Teresa did, the same place Elijah did.  They went on: Teresa to continue her disheartening work; Elijah to walk forty days and nights to the mountain of God.  They went on, but not under their own power.  The God who had seemed to abandon them was there with them.  For Elijah, God was there in the form of an angel who brought food, refreshment, and encouragement.  For Teresa, God was there in an intimate, mystical friendship more real to her than life itself.

     And what about us who can grow weary of the battle and be tempted to throw in the towel? Should we expect an angel to comfort and feed, or a voice from heaven? Maybe not, but angels come in many forms, and God speaks in many ways.

     In the gospel today Jesus speaks of a gift greater even than the ministry of angels, promises food more wondrous even than the manna given in the wilderness.  Jesus promises himself – the Living Bread come down from heaven, bread to nourish us on our journey, bread to assure us we will never die.  “I myself am the living bread come down from heaven,” he says. “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

     Dear friends, we would not be here were it not for our hunger for this bread and our belief that in receiving it we receive what we need to continue our journey, to go on with our struggle whatever it may be. We eat this bread in faith, faith that is itself a gift from the God who draws us; we eat it in hope, confident that it has power to lift us up as the angel once lifted up Elijah; we eat it in loving communion with one another, conscious that, in receiving the Bread that is Christ’s Body, we are also becoming his Body. And we eat it in gratitude, counting ourselves blessed, along with St. Teresa, to be among the friends of God -- “few,” perhaps, but so very fortunate!

Father Michael G. Ryan

 

 

 

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