Sometimes things are so horrible we say we just want to die. Most of the time we intend that metaphorically. Elijah, in today’s first reading, seems to mean it literally. He is fleeing for his life, as Jezebel is determined to kill him because he vanquished the prophets of Baal and put them to death. Parking himself under a broom tree a day’s journey into the desert, he prays, “This is enough, O Lord! Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”
It is not clear whether Elijah is fed up with the difficulty of his ministry, or whether he is lamenting his own actions, having just killed the prophets of Baal. Perhaps it is both. In any case, the frailty of God’s fiery prophet is most visible. When Elijah is at his lowest, God’s messenger comes with food and water, urging him to continue onward. Obediently, he gets up and takes nourishment, continuing his sojourn in the desert for 40 more days, a trek that is reminiscent of the Israelite desert wandering of 40 years. Elijah’s quest will culminate at Mount Horeb (also called Sinai in the J and P strands of the Pentateuchal narrative). There, like Moses, he encounters God.
But the Holy One is not in the fierce wind or the earthquake or the fire, but in the voice that emerges out of sheer silence. The divine voice instructs him to anoint kings over Aram and Israel and to anoint Elisha as prophet to take his place. This last part of the narrative is not included in today’s reading. When read as a whole, however, the story points us to the ways in which God can tame the fierceness in us, when, like Elijah, our passion for justice can find us in bloody battles with opponents. We emerge victorious, but at what cost?
In the desert Elijah learns of God’s nonviolent ways. He does not find the Holy One in the violent wind or the earthquake or the fire, but in the silence that instructs him to anoint others: an act of consecration and also of healing.
In the Gospel, there is murmuring in the desert by the people surrounding Jesus, just as the Israelites did with Moses. In the latter instance, the complaint was about not having food, to which God responded by sending manna and quail. In the Gospel, the problem is with the source of the spiritual nourishment being offered. Jesus claims to be the “bread that came down from heaven,” echoing God’s promise in Is 55:10-11 of the nourishing and effective word that comes “down from heaven.” In this first part of the discourse on the bread of life, the emphasis is on bread as a nourishing word. In the second half, which we will hear next Sunday, the emphasis is on eucharistic nourishment.
The source of this nourishing word is a point of contention. The people think they know Jesus’ origins and family; is he not one just like them? Another stumbling block is his unusual manner of teaching. He does not preach in Elijah’s fiery way but waits for God to draw open hearts to himself, letting themselves be taught, through listening and learning, while not seeing entirely, and finally responding with belief. This is “living bread,” a nourishing word that leads one to cherish all life, to choose life and, ultimately, to relinquish one’s own life for the life of the world, believing that this is the way to life eternal.