I have long admired the prophet Elijah from the Old Testament, but never felt any particular connection to him. We are all baptized priest, prophet, and king and share in these charisms as have so many who have gone before us. But I’ve found Elijah to be an enigmatic figure until recently – particularly in this reading today.
So Elijah goes days into the desert and there, sitting beneath a broom tree, he says the most extraordinary thing. The book of Kings has him praying for death saying “This is enough, O LORD! Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”
I don’t think he’s saying this to be dramatic or that he is being sarcastic – I think he was serious. ‘This is it, I’m done – let’s get this over with’. I have to admit that over the past couple of weeks, and perhaps you have shared in this, I have felt a similar sentiment in my own heart.
We don’t have to look far to see the overwhelming brokenness of the world. We read the news and see violence, poverty, illness and natural disaster. People just being mean –sometimes of those people have great power while sometimes they just have a platform of some sort, but they just say awful things about each other. We see whole countries or cultures that are falling apart. One example is in Ireland – once a bastion of Catholic culture (or so we thought) – which recently legalized abortion. A move that most of us would have assumed unthinkable, right up until it happened.
We see it in our own country, watching the divide of political sides and ideological groups grow with folks becoming more entrenched against those on the opposite end. People who are otherwise generally of good will are drawn in or even jump in eagerly.
Even here locally we see signs of brokenness, or things that are worrisome. In the announcement last week of the closure of one of our parishes – Sacred Heart parish in Morton.
We also see it in our faith: seeing our bishops and cardinals fail us – again – abusing their power. We see a former cardinal who abused his power in terrible ways. And it seems that there may be bishops who knew of this and turned a blind eye at best, possibly even actively covering it up.
“This is enough, O LORD! Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”
It’s not sinful to feel these things, to look around, feel the pressure and weight of all of this – wanting to respond simply ‘I’m out of here, I don’t want anything to do with this, what could I possibly can do?’.
No one here is necessarily a citizen of Ireland. None of us necessarily have great political influence. Most of us don’t have great sway in the Church and sometimes there are even decisions – like the closure of a parish – that are hard, if necessary. We might wonder ‘what am I supposed to do now?’.
Saint Paul warns us of what we’re not supposed to do: that we should not allow ourselves to be filled with bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, reviling, or malice. We certainly have enough of that already in the world. Yet we certainly feel that temptation, certainly in the injustice of things that are wrong, against those who have betrayed us, in the face of those things that are just sorrowful. Are response is both sorrow and anger.
If you’ll pardon me for taking a quote from outside of the Catholic tradition, there’s a quote from someone – I think it’s the Buddha1 – it says that “bitterness is liking drinking poison and expecting your enemy to die”. It doesn’t work, and usually rebounds back on us. So where do we go, what do we do?
I think we can take solace in God’s response to Elijah’s exclamation. Elijah, who is God’s chosen prophet, who is to proclaim God’s will. He’s had enough, and it seems apparent that he’s gone there to die, telling God as much. And God, who has previously shown Himself in fire and thunder and fury…doesn’t do any of that in response.
Instead, He sends an angel to Elijah, who gives him bread while telling him ‘you need to eat, or you won’t have strength for the journey’. So Elijah does, and then he goes back to sleep. And the angel comes back a second time, repeating the message and offering more food. Elijah eats a second time – and then walks through the desert for forty days until he reaches the mountain of God.
We see something similar going on in the Gospel today, with Jesus. You might recall last week’s Gospel, which we pick up from today. Jesus has gone off and the people chase after Him. When they finally find Him, He calls them out for their motivation: ‘you’re not here because you want signs or miracles; you’re here because you saw the five thousand fed … and you’re simply looking to be fed again’.
But Jesus isn’t scolding them, He’s raising the ante. The Father has sent an angel in the past – now He’s sending His Son. And where He gave regular bread in the past, He gives eternal sustenance: the bread of life. Because the journey is long, and we will not make it if we are not fed.
We may truly and genuinely feel powerless in the face of the brokenness of the world, of our own communities, in the brokenness of our own Church – and it’s leaders. But we are not powerless. Not that we’re somehow powerful in our own right, not because we’re especially strong or wise or well-spoken – but because we are fed with the bread of life.
We too are here – who may have come for a variety of reasons, maybe because we’re ‘supposed to’, or because we have to, or because we like the music (or the donuts), or maybe we just don’t know why we are here. And the Lord does not spurn our motivation, whatever it may be, nor judge our very human feelings – He responds by making Himself present, at this altar, in this Mass. He gives us spiritual food.
The journey is long, and we will not make it unless we receive His Precious Body and His Precious Blood.
But what do we do from here? I’m not suggesting that you walk into the desert – but the tasks in front of us are no less burdensome. They will be fruitful, however, if we take seriously our responsibility to both walk and invite others to the mountain of God.
It is our responsibility to preach the Gospel of Life, even if we don’t live in Ireland. It is our responsibility even in the face of parishes to closing, even to community members we may not know, to reach out to parishioners from Morton and let them know that we are united with them, to invite them to join us in worship and service and to walk with them as they prepare to say goodbye to what they have come to love.
And even with our bishops, though we may not have power over them, we all can write letters – in charity, in kindness – to say ‘I want to support you bishop, who I believe is good, but also I want to ask you to hold accountable those who have failed in or abused their authority.’ And believe it or not, you can in fact write letters to the pope! If you include your phone number, he’s been known from time to time to call.
We are not powerless. Not because we are powerful in ourselves, but because we are fed by the Bread of Life. The Lord sees our desperation, He sees our sorrow – and He does not reject it or punish it but instead sends His only Son so that we might receive the food we need to make the journey. And we need to make that journey, calling people to accountability – even people of power – and inviting them to make come to the mountain of God.
I’ll say one other thing, and you can probably see it coming. Before we can worthily receive the Bread of Life, what do you need to do? Go to confession and make a good confession, especially if it’s been a long time (and we have a new priest here to whom you can make a confession without fear of him knowing you!). But make that good confession – because we need to be purified!
We all have our own imperfections, and we need to be cleansed of any anger or bitterness or malice – because those will not serve the Lord. It may come from a place of wounded-ness or betrayal, but that too must be purified. When we make our stand, when make our call to accountability, even to those in authority, we do it with trust and faith in God without any malice in our hearts.
We are God’s chosen people. He is calling us, and not to just stay here in Church. The final exhortation at the end of Mass – ‘go forth’ – means that we go out and convert the world, inviting others to share in this spiritual food, proclaiming the truth that is even where it is still proclaimed badly or lived poorly. But this is our opportunity at this Mass, to be refreshed so that we can do just that, telling the world that this is the food, this is the bread that will give us eternal life.
1. Well, that turned out to be wrong! Apparently the origin of this saying is a mystery
Post script (a commentary I offered after all the Masses this weekend):
This may be a moment in history when the faithful are called to exhort the clergy, especially our bishops. You may be discerning if and how to write a letter to our archbishop or your local ordinary. I admit that I am fearful of having a parishioner write some sort of nastygram to a bishop with the justification of ‘Father Maurer said to give you a piece of my mind, so here I go!’. Not so fast, please.
If you write a letter, recall that it is another human being who is going to open it and read it – a human being with needs and feelings much like your own. Write with charity, with gentleness even (especially!) if you have hard things that you need to express. Kindness strengthens both your credibility and your message.
And do not ask for the impossible. Bishops do not have the power to investigate other bishops – this is written into Church law and has been done so for many good reasons. But bishops can hold each other accountable in other ways, and they can together request that pope take a more active and authoritative role in situations like these (such as empowering an independent review on his authority as pope). Support and exhortation for bishops to take this step is something we all can offer, though again, in charity and without malice.
Whether we reach out to a bishop or not, all of us can make a difference in simply reaching out in prayer. Foremost, pray for the victims of abuse, for their healing and for the support that they deserve & need. Pray for those members of the Church who are hurting – laity and clergy alike – who need support in the face of all of this. And let us take up fasting! All of us can make sacrifices, whether it be in food or some other form of abstinence. Each of us has the ability to call on God’s grace today and every day. Let’s be sure that we do just that, so that our Church may be purified and we might truly be a conduit of grace for a broken world.