The Bread from Heaven

Post Date: August 5, 2021
Author: Ric Cross

A Reflection on the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Reading I: 1 Kings 19:4-8
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9
Reading II: Ephesians 4:30-5:2
Gospel: John 6:41-51

The prophet Elijah is one of the most important figures in Old Testament history and he appeared in the northern Kingdom of Israel after the nation became divided, probably in the 7th century B.C. It was believed that Elijah would one day return to earth as the forerunner of the Messiah.

The kings of Israel had fallen away from the worship of the true God and were influenced by the pagan worship of Baal, introduced by Jezebel the wife of Ahab, the King of Israel. Elijah was the leader in the struggle to restore true worship of Yahweh in Israel.

Our first reading from the 1st Book of Kings follows immediately the passage wherein Elijah challenged the people and the prophets of Baal to choose between the God of Israel and Baal. After proving to the people (see chapter 18) that there is no god but the God of Israel, he had the 450 prophets of Baal put to death. That infuriated Jezebel who swore an oath that she would avenge the blood of the pagan prophets through the blood of Elijah. Afraid for his life, Elijah fled into the desert; and that brings us to our first reading.

Once again, our scriptures this week are very Eucharistic in nature and a cursory reading of them should make that apparent. In our first reading from 1st Kings, Elijah is presented to us as on a journey through the desert to meet God at the mountain of God called Horeb (in other texts this same mountain is referred to as Mount Sinai). If we read a little further in chapter 19 of 1st Kings, we would notice the parallels in this reading with the Exodus experience of the Israelites on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land:

Israel journeyed 40 years in the wilderness; Elijah traveled 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness.

The Israelites were cared for by God during their journey; Elijah was also cared for by God with food and drink.

Elijah traveled to the same mountain where Israel met God on the Exodus and it was on this mountain that Israel received their covenantal relationship with God and received the Law of God transmitted through Moses.

The parallels between Elijah’s experience and that of the Israelites during the Exodus are important here because they point to a renewal of the covenantal relationship between God and the people that will be initiated by Elijah’s experience on the holy mountain.

Elijah is presented to us as the only surviving prophet of God in Israel, all the others having been put to death by the pagans, so it may appear that God has deserted his people. But on that mountain where Moses declared God’s Law and the people affirmed the covenant, the will of God will be declared to Elijah as it was to Moses, and what will be revealed to Elijah will be the redemption of Israel through a remnant of the people who have not turned away from God by disobeying the Law they received through Moses. That remnant represents the basis for hope in the future for Israel. The covenant made through Moses had been violated by most of the people as well as by their kings; Elijah will signify a renewal of that covenant. And as we all know, that covenant was renewed through the person of Jesus Christ.

The Eucharistic connection in this reading is seen in the food and drink that God miraculously provided for Elijah to sustain him on his 40 day journey. As a side note: We often read 40 days or 40 years in the scriptures but, in ancient tradition, the term does not necessarily refer to a number of days or years between 39 and 41. 40 days refers to a “long time,” or to a “time of purification.” Thus, the Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness being tested by God to see if they would follow God’s commands. Jesus spent 40 days in the desert preparing for his public ministry. And now we have Elijah traveling 40 days in preparation for meeting God on the holy mountain.

Turning to our gospel from chapter 6 of John, we find the people unable to accept Jesus’ words. Jesus grew up in their midst, so the people knew him, and they knew his father and mother, so they were unable to accept Jesus’ statements: “Whoever listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me” and “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”

Up to this point in chapter 6 salvation is based on belief in Jesus: “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent” (6:29). But now, Jesus becomes very specific. Not only does Jesus declare that he is the bread that came down from heaven but he also declares: “Whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” Now, eternal life is contingent upon SACRAMENT, not simply faith alone.

We are called to be a communal people as St. Paul reminds us in our second reading. We are called to put an end to: “All bitterness, fury, anger…” A community that listens to the Father and learns from him and turns to Jesus; a community that believes the words of Jesus but also believes in, and partakes of, the sacraments of the church that he established on earth for the forgiveness of our sins.

How often we find ourselves, like the people who heard Jesus in our gospel passage today, doubting Jesus’ words and doubting the true presence of Christ in the sacraments of the church. Anyone, Protestant or Catholic, who believes in the scriptures, must also believe in chapter 6 of the Gospel of John. And anyone who believes in chapter 6 of the Gospel of John, must believe in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the pledge of our immortality in the unending presence of God in that happy state of existence we refer to as heaven.

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