Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Elijah is worn out from his work as God’s prophet in the first reading (1 Kings 19:4-8) today. In his exhaustion, he prays for death, but instead, the Lord invites him to sleep and eat. Strengthened by the food God provides for him, Elijah is able to walk forty days and forty nights to God’s holy mountain, Horeb. This is another name for Mount Sinai, the place where Moses was for forty days and forty nights, and where he received from God’s hand the Ten Commandments. Mt. Horeb/Sinai is the place where God makes the great covenant with the people of Israel. Before the covenant was made, God had begun to feed His people with manna as they wandered in the desert. The providential care of God prepares the people for the covenant, when, by giving the Law, God instructs His people in how they ought to live. The Commandments bind Israel to the Lord, but it is the feeding with manna that gives credibility and support to the covenant. God provides and is worthy of our obedience. The food points to the covenant. So now, Elijah, having defended the covenant against those in Israel who have been unfaithful to the Law given by God, is on his way to the place where the covenant was first established. Fed by God, he is strengthened to go to that holy site, and there on that holy mountain he encounters God, who once again provides for His people by instructing Elijah about who should be appointed to lead the people, to guide them in truth, to protect and provide for them.
As we continue reading John 6, we stand with Jesus who teaches that He is the bread of life, the new bread come down from heaven. Just as the Jews ate manna in the desert, so His followers will eat the new, true bread from heaven, which is His Body and Blood, the Eucharist. The Eucharist will point us to the new covenant, which Jesus establishes on the Cross. In preparation, He multiplies loaves and fish and promises to continue feeding His people. Just as the manna was given to Israel in their desert wanderings, so Jesus multiplies bread in a vast grassy place, that is, in the wilderness. Just as Elijah was strengthened for his mission by the food God provided, Jesus promises to feed those who will carry on His mission. Just as the manna prefigured and pointed to the covenant God would make, and just as Elijah’s journey to the site of the covenant is a sign of the renewal of that same covenant, so the Eucharist is a reminder of God’s providential design, it calls to mind the new covenant Christ establishes by His Blood, and it renews in our hearts our personal commitment to live according to God’s covenant of salvation.
Notice that some of the people grumble against Jesus, because they know where He is from. They know Him as the son of Joseph and Mary, they know His hometown, and so they grumble that Jesus stakes a claim to heavenly origins. As yet, they do not see how Jesus is recapitulating the whole history of Israel in His own Person. They do not see how He is fulfilling the Law given on Sinai, how He is fulfilling the word and teaching of the Prophets, how He (in His divinity) is the same God who fed Israel with manna in the wilderness. With the benefit of some chronological distance and the whole of scholarly Scriptural exegesis, we can see these things more clearly. We know that we have access to the living bread from heaven, to Jesus’ flesh which is life for the world. We know that the most Blessed Sacrament, the Mystery of the Eucharist brings us into that recapitulation of God’s salvific work, renews us in the covenant of Baptism, and strengthens us for the journey ahead.
Perhaps today we should give greater focus to Elijah’s forty-day journey to Mt. Horeb. The food and rest God had given him strengthened Elijah for the journey, and it was after that long journey that Elijah had his most profound encounter with God. Likewise, in John 6, we have seen the people receive strength from Jesus in the form of food, which they eat while reclining, at rest. They then follow Him on the journey, looking for more. Along the way Jesus begins to prepare them for the deeper encounter with the Divine that they seek, though they cannot yet understand. He prepares them for the Eucharist, when humanity consumes Divinity, when heaven meets earth. This encounter will not be a one-time experience, as Elijah’s forty-day journey and subsequent mountain-top encounter was a one-time experience. No, the Eucharist will be repeated many times, so that day after day, as God fed the Israelites with manna, we might be fed by the divine presence with us. Again and again in each celebration of the Eucharist, as God sent prophets to teach and guide His people, so now the Church is taught and guided by the presence of Christ in the mystery of this great sacrament. The long walk through the desert that Elijah made is analogous to the long journey through life, with all its pitfalls, challenges, joys, sufferings, and blessings, that we undertake. It was food from heaven that gave the prophet strength, and so it is food from heaven that gives us strength each day. We are in the forty days with Elijah, but our experience of that time is distinct. We know the One who feeds us, we know what that food really is, we know that it is given that we might have, not earthly life, but life in the Spirit. And most of all, we know that our destination is not an earthly mountain, but the mountain of God that is Heaven itself.