1 Kings 19:4-8
Earlier this weekend I had the joy of going to New Orleans to celebrate the wedding of two friends of mine at the seminary where I spent four years preparing for the joy that is priestly life and service. In the short day that I was there, I was immediately faced with one of the parts I liked least about New Orleans: the potholes. The only time I wasn’t bouncing around, it seemed, was when I was stopped. The constant sway and thump of the car as I went along kept me conscious that I was moving somewhere. I began to think about the many ways that other means of transportation give us similar experiences. Turbulence on planes, swaying on trains, and the movement of boats that if endured long enough makes you feel like you’re still on it well after you’re sitting at home on the couch. The point is that all of those things provide a sensible awareness of movement. One of the great tragedies of our day is the truth that while we are on a journey, moving toward our final end, it easily happens that we are completely unaware of that movement. For instance, are you conscious of the fact that right now we’re moving at a high velocity as the Earth orbits the Sun? In the same way, the spiritual life is one in which we are called to be aware of our movement or bear serious consequences otherwise.
Last week we continued the reflections on John 6 as we discuss the necessity of food. This week we pick up with food once more, as the Scripture shows us that the food is necessary for a purpose, for a journey. Once again the Church gives us a back story in the first reading to help frame the teachings of Jesus in the Gospel, and this week it is Elijah the prophet. What is interesting to me is that the reading we just heard, when joined to the passages immediately before and after it, is much the same as the story of the Israelites’ and their journey we heard the last two weeks.
Immediately prior to the passage we heard was the story of Elijah and the 400 prophets of Baal. The Israelites had begun to turn away from God and worship false gods, of which Baal was one of the more notable. Elijah challenged the 400 prophets to a test: to set two altars up on the mountain and see whose god would show up. The 400 prophets of Baal did their chants, dances, and invocations and nothing happened. Elijah poured water on his altar, invoked the God of Israel, and the whole things was consumed by fire from heaven. Having shown that the God of Israel was Lord, he took the 400 prophets and had them killed, symbolically turning away from false gods and toward the Lord. It was a story of conversion of the people, much like that of the Israelites’ being set free from slavery in Egypt. And just as the freedom from slavery led the Israelites into the desert, so too Elijah fled to the desert. That’s where we pick up the story today. He goes a days journey and lies down. He is awoken to eat and drink, which he does. Then it happens again, with the angel adding to it a deep insight for him and for us both: he must eat in order to have strength for the journey. The food was the necessary starting point for the journey that Elijah would make 40 days through the desert and the 40 days wasn’t just happenstance. The Israelites wandered 40 years, Elijah 40 days, Jesus was in the desert 40 days, Lent for us is 40 days. I think you get the gist. The story is simply replayed anew. And so the forty days journey leads Elijah to Mount Horeb, and this is where the story ends today. But we know the rest of the story without having to even have it read because we know what happens when we climb a mountain, right? We encounter God. And the same with Elijah. He climbs Horeb and there sees great fire, a powerful earthquake but then came a still quiet whisper and he knew it was the Lord passing by and he covered his face and bowed down in prayer. The Israelites travelled 40 years to go up (think mountain!) to the Promised Land. Elijah went 40 days to the mountain to meet God. And us? We’re on a journey too and it’s a journey not just to a land provided by God or an encounter with God that lasts only for a moment. We are on a journey to the heart of the Father through that of the Son by the grace of the Holy Spirit that we culminate in us being part of their embrace for all eternity in the reality that call ‘Heaven’.
As I said at the beginning, the problem so often is that we forget we’re on a journey at all but rather think that this is the main portion of our lives and we spend our time not looking anywhere else but being caught up in the things of this world, the stuff of our daily lives. And when we forget that we’re on a journey, we don’t worry about stocking up on the food.
Put more practically: why do we have to come to Mass? You’ve surely heard the question from someone else, maybe even thought it or said it yourself. I know I have. “Father, I don’t understand why I have to go to Mass. I can pray anywhere since God’s everywhere.” Gardens and farm fields, deer stands and duck blinds, prayer spots and little chapels in a home. All of these are places we can pray and should pray. Our life should be a continuous conversation with God that finds us in all sorts of places offering prayer. But my question in the midst of all of them is this: where’s the food? We have to have food for the journey to heaven and Jesus makes it clear that He’s coming to provide it. Where’s the food?
Coming to Mass is about glorifying God first and foremost for everything He’s done for us and for everything He is in Himself. He deserves it simply for that. But why do we come? What makes Mass different than any other experience of prayer, regardless of the space? The Eucharist. Here and here alone are we nourished with the Bread of Life that opens for us the gates of Heaven. It’s for us to respond to the promptings of the angels that surround us and actually partake of it, to rise once more and be strengthened for the journey.
In conclusion I have one basic question: how often do we contemplate Heaven? Heaven is eternal and if we though about it, this life is but the first letter of a single book in an entirely library full in comparison to eternity. How are we setting out minds on the place that awaits us? How are we storing up treasure that never fades? How often to do we contemplate Heaven?