John 6:41-51, 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
My dear friends, have you ever seen someone trying to coax a moody baby to eat? Perhaps you’ve done it yourself. It can be quite a challenge. The adult knows that the infant needs food to grow. But, for some reason, it refuses to eat. Maybe it’s sleepy, or distracted, or in a bad mood. What to do? One common tactic I’ve seen people use is to tickle the baby’s lips with a spoon to make it laugh. And when it does laugh, to quickly insert the food into its open mouth. Then there is also that classic move, where you wave a spoonful of food around as though it’s an aeroplane, accompanied by the appropriate sound effects. Whatever the method, whether it’s by touching or through make-believe, the aim is the same. To get the baby to open its mouth and eat. To convince it to accept the nourishment it needs to grow healthy and strong.
In case you’re wondering, sisters and brothers, there are no babies in our Mass readings today. But what we do find are people who refuse to eat. In the first reading, the prophet Elijah has been very busy doing God’s work. He has called down a drought on the land, and also made it rain again. He has caused a famine to break out, and also multiplied food. He has raised a dead boy to life, and also defeated and killed 450 false prophets. He has confronted a sinful king, foiling his evil plans, and calling him to repent. As a result, the king is now out to kill Elijah. And the prophet has to flee for his life.
Yes, Elijah has indeed been very busy. It’s no wonder that, when we meet him in the first reading, the prophet is completely and utterly burnt out. I have had enough, he says. All he wants to do is to lie down and go to sleep. He even wishes he were dead. And, in a way, he is already spiritually dead. He no longer has the capacity to care about anything or anyone anymore. Have you ever felt like this? As though you’ve simply had enough? Ready to throw in the towel? And isn’t it possible for me to continue walking around, apparently busy with many things, while actually already fast asleep? Spiritually dead? Unable to truly love anyone or care about anything anymore?
But Elijah’s journey is not yet over. God still has plans for him. So that, instead of letting the prophet sleep, God sends an angel to feed him. And it’s helpful to notice how this is done. Not once, but twice, we’re told that the angel touched him and said ‘Get up and eat…’ What does it feel like to be touched by an angel? Perhaps it’s not unlike how a baby might feel when it’s lips are tickled with a spoon. For Elijah, the experience rouses him. He awakens and eats, and gains the strength to walk for forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, where he receives a new mission from the Lord.
As you may recall from the readings of last week, in the Gospel, Jesus too has been trying to persuade people to eat. He offers himself to them as the Bread of Life. The spiritual food that they need, to give their lives true purpose and deep meaning. To eat this Bread, to feed on this Food, is to come to Jesus and to believe in him. To believe that, in him, God has loved the world so much that he sent his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life (Jn 3:16).
As with the angel’s touch in the first reading, in Christ, God the Father draws people, draws you and me, to himself. Coaxing us to feast on the spiritual nourishment that is God’s only begotten Son.Unfortunately, unlike Elijah, the people in the Gospel are too distracted to get up and eat. Believing that they know everything about Jesus, they cannot bring themselves to accept that he has indeed come down from heaven. Stubbornly clinging to their own prejudices, they refuse to eat.
Overwork and burn-out in the first reading. Distraction and prejudice in the Gospel. These are some of the reasons why people stop eating. Why they prefer to remain asleep. Why they cannot receive the nourishment God provides. The food we all need to live life to the full. The kind of life described in the second reading, which tells us to never have grudges against others, or to lose our temper. But instead to forgive each other as readily as God forgave us in Christ. Following Christ in loving as he loved us, giving himself up in our place as a fragrant offering and a sacrifice to God.
To live a loving self-sacrificing life like this is not easy. It requires spiritual energy. The energy we receive by regularly feeding on Christ. Not just by gathering to receive Holy Communion every week. But by doing it with minds and hearts that are open enough to receive God’s love. Attentive enough to recall the ways in which God showers blessings and gifts upon us, both as individuals and as a community. And unless we do this, unless we truly feed on Christ in this way, we fail to receive the nourishment we need to live as Christ lives. To love as Christ loves. As a result, all the busy-ness that we may engage in every day drains us, the way it drained Elijah. Perhaps even making us more angry and resentful, rather than more patient and kind.
Thankfully, God refuses to let us remain asleep. God continues to insist on drawing us. On sending an angel to touch us. Often we experience this touch in the desires that we find stirring in our hearts. Desires for a different kind of life. Desires that are the flip-side of the sins we may confess when we celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Desires that are actually placed in our hearts by God. To rouse us from sleep. To draw us to Christ. To coax us to get up and to eat.
My dear sisters and brothers, just as good parents will insist on feeding a baby, even when it refuses to eat. So too does our merciful God insist on feeding us, even when we may forget our need for food. How is God touching you and drawing you to receive his love today?
*from Breaking the Word