THIS Sunday’s readings explore the ways in which God feeds his people on their earthly pilgrimage. In our Gospel, Jesus again contrasts the gift of his flesh with the manna which fed Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness. Our Old Testament reading describes another desert feeding, as God sustains his prophet Elijah in a time of desolation.
After his triumph over the priests of Baal, Elijah was forced to flee from the wrath of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. He now finds himself excluded and isolated. The “solitary broom tree” in the wilderness offers a vivid metaphor for his plight. God’s angel feeds Elijah physically and spiritually. Before this, he was pleading with God to end his life, but, “in the strength of that food”, he journeys for forty days to Mount Horeb.
Gina Hens-Piazza lists the different aspects of the story which echo incidents in the life of Moses: “Once, Moses killed an enemy and fled to the wilderness in order to escape those who sought his life. On another occasion, Elijah’s great ancestor came to a bush and encountered a divine messenger. In another story, Moses wished for his own death in the wilderness, when he was overcome with the burden of his commission. And again, God fed Moses and the people in that desert setting” (Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: 1-2 Kings).
In each case, the feeding sustains people on a journey: Elijah’s forty-day journey to Horeb echoes the Israelites’ forty years of wandering before entering the Promised Land.
The Psalmist invites us to “taste and see that the Lord is gracious.” St Thomas Aquinas notes that, when an object is removed from us, the experience of it comes through sight, smell, or hearing, whereas, “if it is close, then touch and taste come into play. . . Touch senses the outside of the object, whereas taste senses the inside.” We can speak of “tasting God” precisely because “God is not far from us nor outside us, but rather he is in us” (Commentary on the Psalms).
It is in Christ that we see the full meaning of the Psalmist’s invitation. On the cross, and at every altar, he becomes our food. As Jesus tells his hearers: “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Aquinas observes that “it was not fitting for Christ to be always with us in his own presence; and so he wanted to make up for this absence through this sacrament. It sustains us on earth and will later produce eternal life” (Commentary on the Gospel of St John).
Jesus tells the crowd that “This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.” To participate in the eucharist is both to be united to Christ’s sacrifice and to share in his resurrection. As Hans Urs von Balthasar observes, what is given us and what is demanded in this sacrament far exceed what is given and demanded in the feeding of Elijah (Light of the Word). Precisely because we are feeding on Christ, to eat this bread is to be drawn into his self-offering “for the life of the world”.
Our epistle speaks of the way in which the life of the Church is both fed and shaped by this sacrificial offering. The Ephesians are told that they must put away falsehood and speak the truth, because they are “members of one another”. This relationship between Christians flows from the fact that we are (in the words of the BCP post-communion prayer) “very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people”.
Commenting on our epistle, von Balthasar writes that “Christ’s eucharistic attitude must become the motif of Christian life, a life lived in imitation of God’s love, an imitation that can only consist in mutual love, compassion, and forgiveness.”
The epistle urges us to be “imitators of God”, living in a love that echoes the “fragrant offering and sacrifice” which Christ has offered to God for our redemption. In doing so, von Balthasar writes, we “become for each other a sort of eucharistic nourishment for the journey — something like food that unexpectedly materialises for our neighbours in the middle of the desert of our lives, like Elijah’s piece of bread and jar of water”.