I always like it when I can start a homily with a good story. I like it even more when I can start a homily with a really good Bible story; and when it comes to Bible stories, they do not get much better than the story about the prophet Elijah.
At a very difficult time in the history of Israel, Elijah was called by God to be a profit and bring God’s message to the people. At the time Elijah was called, the nation was being ruled by an evil King and Queen by the name of Ahab and Jezebel. They had brought false gods into the worship of the country and had taken to worshiping the false god Baal, who was thought to be the god of rain, thunder, lightening, and dew. Elijah was called to tell the people of Israel that there would be a drought for as long as they were unfaithful to the true and living God. Because Baal was thought to be in charge of the rain, for Elijah to claim that the true God had power over it, was a direct challenge to Baal’s authority.
Complicating the matter for Elijah was the fact that he was the only remaining prophet who spoke to the people of Israel for the true and living God. The false god Baal had hundreds of prophets and priests who claimed to speak on his behalf and promised rain. In order to show who was the one true God, the priests of Baal and Elijah decided that they would have a contest to see who is the one true God. They engaged in a competition to see which of the two prophets were serving the one true God. They both prepared an ox for sacrifice to see which one would have fire come down from heaven to accept it. The way in which these two sacrifices were prepared was almost hilarious. It is worth reading the account that is found in 1 Kings 18. Here an altar is built for the 450 priests of Baal to offer their sacrifice. The priests pray from sun up to sun down for Baal to light and accept their sacrifice. As the scriptures recount: “At noon Elijah mocked them saying, Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” The priests of Baal screamed and cut themselves all day long and nothing happened. Nothing happened to their sacrifice. When the time came for Elijah, the lone prophet of the true God, to offer his sacrifice, and for it to be set aflame as an offering, He poured large jars of water on it and dug a trench around it and filled it with water. As soon as he said a prayer, the true God of Israel sent a huge fire on the offering and the fire devoured Elijah’s offering. This was a clear sign that Elijah was the true prophet and spoke for the one and only God of Israel.
Now this story does not end so happily. Today, when we have competitions, such as the Olympics that are on now, the winner gets a gold medal and the losers go home empty handed. Not so back then, when the false prophets lost this competition, Elijah ordered that they should all be taken down to the river and killed. Once this has happened, and the land had been cleansed of the false prophets of Baal, Elijah prays, the rains begin and the drought is over. This proves that the god Baal had nothing to do with the rain or anything else and the One True God of Israel has power over everything. And this is where we meet Elijah today in the first reading.
After Elijah had the prophets of Baal killed, Jezebel decided that he should also die. Now the first thing that I will say about this, is that killing is always wrong, and we cannot judge this story by today’s standards. I am sure that many would like to bring the “cancel culture” to the scriptures and do away with any story that is politically incorrect; but that would also probably involve getting rid of all the really good stories. However, pardon me for my digression. Today, in the first reading, Elijah is fleeing for his life. He is exhausted and can go no further. He lies down basically to die. I am sure he is wondering how God can be rewarding him in this way for his faithful service. As he lies down, the Angel of the Lord, commands him to get up and eat the bread that has been prepared for him. He eats once, has another little nap, and is commanded to do so a second time, for as the angel says: “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too long for you.” Once he has been nourished by the Lord, he gets up and has the strength to journey for forty days and forty nights, until he comes to the Mountain of the Lord at Horeb.
As we continue to hear the Bread of Life Discourse this Sunday, from chapter six of John’s Gospel, and Jesus tells us that He is the Bread of Life that will lead us to eternal life, He is actually telling us that He has come from Heaven to give us the food that will strengthen us to get to Heaven.
The other day, I was out for breakfast with a number of parishioners. During the course of the meal, one of the parishioners shared that this has been a sshhurely, not so good year for our Church, but used a word that I can’t use in a homily; which was, however, very accurate. Throughout this difficult year, many of us have tried to be faithful to the Lord. In the midst of it, some of the scandals that we have heard about have caused us pain and made it difficult to witness to our faith. It is possible that we have felt like Elijah and desired to give up. This is where the words of the Angel to Elijah are as important to us as they were to him: “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”
Jesus has come down from Heaven to be with us on our journey and strengthen us as we make our way to Him, and the place the Father has prepared for us. While He was among us, Jesus left us His Word and example to guide us. As we hear in this week’s Gospel, He has also left us His Body so that we might know that He is always with us. When we consume the Eucharist, it is Christ Himself who comes to us and desires to be with us to strengthen us. He invites us to the certainty that He is with us and walks with us on our journey. Sometimes, when we feel beat down by life, we are able to face almost any difficulty if we know that someone else is with us to support us. With another person at our side, we can bear almost anything. That was one of the huge graces that I learned this year during the pandemic. I really sensed a strong feeling of the Lord being with me as a friend and companion. This came as a result of many hours spent here in the church during adoration between communion services. I realize that a significant part of what allowed me to receive this tremendous grace was spending time with the Lord and really believing in His presence in the Eucharist.
Jesus took the time to come down from Heaven to get to know us. He has given us the sacrament of His Body and Blood that we might know Him. One question that we might take away from this Sunday’s readings is how do we allow the Lord to feed us? How much do we really believe in His presence in the Eucharist? I don’t think it is possible for a Catholic who does not really understand the significance of the real presence in the Eucharist to understand how much God wishes to be with us and do for us to strengthen us on our journeys. His real presence in the Eucharist announces the presence of a friend, brother, Savior and God who wishes to be at our side to strengthen us on the journey through this life, that we, like Elijah, might come into the presence of God at those moments when we are called to face our own trial and difficulties.
May our experience of Christ in the Eucharist bring us to the grace of knowing that He is always with us to strengthen us through this life’s trying and difficult times. May He give us the confidence to be His witnesses today.
Fr. Michael McGourty,
Pastor, St. Peter’s Church—Toronto.