19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Beneath the Surface
Readings: 1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 33:2-9; Ephesians 4:30-5:2; John 6:41-51
Sisters and brothers, have any of you been watching the Olympics? Have you seen the synchronised swimming events? It’s quite amazing what those groups of young women can do in the water, isn’t it? Not only can they move different parts of their bodies as though they were a single unit, they can also perform such amazing feats as appearing to walk on the surface of the water, and even leaping many feet into the air, while keeping their movements synchronised. And they make it all seem so easy, so effortless! Truly sensational to watch!
But we wouldn’t really be getting the full picture if we stopped there, would we? What we have just described are only some of the things that happen above the water. As you know, what’s perhaps even more important is what’s going on below the surface. It’s only when we watch carefully the scenes captured by the underwater cameras that we begin to see more clearly. It’s only then that we begin to appreciate much better the actual extent of the young ladies’ talent and mastery. It is only when we look below the surface, for example, that we begin to see that the person who may seem to be walking so effortlessly across the surface of the water is actually being supported by many others, strenuously treading water below. So that, although synchronised swimmers are awarded points based only on what happens on and above the water, it is still what they do below the surface that makes all the difference.
And it’s perhaps useful for us to remember this lesson learned from watching synchronised swimming when we meditate on our Mass readings for today. For, at first glance, it may seem that our readings are really pretty straightforward. It’s all about the benefits of eating. In the first reading, the prophet Elijah is burnt-out and ready to give up. But he eats the food that God provides, and is rejuvenated. In the gospel, Jesus tells his listeners that it’s not just any kind of bread that is worth eating. Not even the manna that their ancestors ate in the desert. For all of them have died. The food that is truly worth eating is Jesus himself. Whoever eats him will live forever.
Now although this message may have seemed shocking to Jesus’ listeners, for us Catholics it’s all really very straightforward. There are no surprises here. For we know what we believe. We know that Jesus is not suggesting that we slice a piece of meat from his thigh, stuff it into our mouths, and chomp down on it, even as the blood drips down our chin. We know very well, or we think we do, that Jesus is talking about the Eucharist. And this is precisely what we are here to do, aren’t we? We gather to eat the Bread of Life. So we’re already doing what Jesus wants us to do. In fact we do it every week. Some of us even everyday. What more can our readings be saying to us that we aren’t already doing?
And yet, could it be that there is more to our readings than this? Could it be that this is only what is happening above the surface? Could it be that we’ll only see more if we were to switch on and to focus the underwater cameras of our mind, so to speak?
We do this by first paying closer attention to the actions of the prophet Elijah. When first we meet him at the start of the first reading, he’s running from Queen Jezebel, who wishes to kill him. He is tired and worn out. He’s ready to give up the mission that God has given him. But still, as burnt-out as he may be, Elijah’s journey into the wilderness is clearly more than just an escape. For in the wilderness, Elijah does something that an escapee would probably not do. He prays to the very God from whom he seems to be escaping. I have had enough, he says, take my life. And it is in response to these words of utter desolation, to this prayer of deep despair and disillusionment, that God sends an angel to encourage and to nourish Elijah. So that, even though Elijah feels like sleeping, the angel rouses him and inspires him to persevere on his journey, until he finally arrives at the mountain of God.
Already, at this point of our meditation, we begin to see that eating the Bread of Life involves more than just habitually showing up in church, and falling in line to receive a tiny communion wafer, which we then proceed to pop into our mouths without a second thought. If Elijah’s experience is anything to go by, to eat the Bread of Life, to truly experience its beneficial effects in our lives, we need also to be conscious of the mission that God has given each of us at our baptism. The mission to bear witness to the Dying and Rising of Christ in the concrete circumstances of our daily lives.
And, out of this consciousness of our God-given mission, we then need to find that place in our experience where we too may be feeling tired and discouraged. Where we too may be ready to say, Lord, I’ve had enough. That place in our heart where we are tempted to stop walking, to lie down, and to fall asleep. Perhaps we may be close to giving up on a spouse who never seems to listen to us or to show us affection. Or on problematic children who insist on doing the exact opposite of whatever we tell them. Or on a habitual sin that we can’t quite seem to shake off no matter how many times we go to confession. Or on trying to speak out against certain unjust practices at work. Whatever the actual situation, like Elijah, we need to enter into the wilderness of our hearts. And, from there, to address our prayer to God. As Elijah did. For when we courageously lay bare our weakness and vulnerability in this way, God sends an angel to strengthen us. An angel who feeds and nourishes us with the Bread of Life, so that we too can continue our journey to the mountain of God.
But that is not all. There is something even more amazing happening below the surface of our readings today. And we catch sight of this amazing thing when we allow ourselves to wonder if Elijah’s experience in the first reading doesn’t remind us of someone else. Do we know of someone else who received a mission from God? Someone else who found it difficult to go on? Someone else who cried out to God and received new strength? Whom might we be talking about if not Jesus himself. Jesus, who, in Gethsemane, cried out in anguish: Father take this cup away from me… Jesus, whose sweat fell like great drops of blood. Jesus, to whom the Father sent an angel to give him strength. Jesus, who rose from his prayer, even as his companions remained fast asleep. Jesus, who then walked on courageously, even to Calvary, the mountain of God.
This then, sisters and brothers, is a more complete picture of what eating the Bread of Life looks like. To be fed on this Bread, as Elijah was, is really to participate in some way in the sacrifice of Christ himself. It is to do the very thing that our second reading encourages us to do. Try, then, we’re told, to imitate God as children of his that he loves and follow Christ loving as he loved you, giving himself up in our place as a fragrant offering and a sacrifice to God. This is what should be happening beneath the surface when we gather to eat the Bread of Life. We should, in some way, be imitating and following the Crucified and Risen One, and walking onward to the mountain of God.
Sisters and brothers, when, in a few moments, each of you comes forward to receive communion, what actually will be going on beneath the surface today?