NINETEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (2021)
Readings: 1 Kings 19:4-8 Psalms 34:2-9Ephesians 4:30-5:2 John 6:41-51
If you have paid close attention over the last several weeks of readings, you might have noticed that there is a lot of murmuring/grumbling going on. The Israelites raised murmuring to a new high. It was understandable that they would murmur under the oppression of the Egyptians, for they were treated like slaves and were basically in exile. Human nature being what it is, they continued to murmur about their leader Moses, and it wasn’t that long into the journey in the desert when their murmuring brought about the response of their generous God: quail and manna. Theologian Michael Lee spoke well when his commentary on last week’s reading from Exodus states: “Faced with that moment [of reckoning], the children of Israel don’t rise to the challenge. They avoid dealing with their present by dreaming wistfully of the past—and a past that never was! After all, life in Egypt was not cucumbers, melons, and onions. It was the bitterness of mortar and brick. How often in difficult situations do we turn to a distorted nostalgia for “good old days” that never were?”
Reluctant prophets also make good murmurers. We have spoken often of how difficult the role of a prophet can be, and so it is not surprising when the Scriptures recount a dose of realism and we see the men of God murmuring. In our first reading from the Book of Kings, Elijah is on the run, only a day into the desert, when he sat down beneath a broom tree and “prayed for death.” Elijah has angered the infamous Queen Jezebel with his preaching of God’s Word, and she is actively seeking his death. Elijah would rather God take his life before Jezebel gets the chance. Instead of taking his life, God renews his life, and nourishes him with the bread of angels. Twice does an angel encourage Elijah to eat, and so powerful is that bread of angels, that Elijah “walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb.”
In today’s gospel from John it is the Jews, with full stomachs, who are murmuring about Jesus because He said “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” We have seen in all the gospels such murmuring: ‘Isn’t this the carpenter’s Son? Don’t we know His cousins? Can any good come out of Nazareth? We know exactly where He came from, and it wasn’t heaven!’ Jesus senses their confusion, and directly tells them: “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
The genius of those who arranged the readings in a three-year cycle after Vatican II is so clearly evident in these weeks. The Sundays of Ordinary time are perfectly ‘filled out’ with one of John’s most important chapters, the Bread of Life discourse, just as Mark’s gospel was about to recount the story of the feeding of the multitude [a story repeated in all four gospels]. Remember, Mark’s gospel is not only the oldest gospel, it is also the shortest gospel, and the pairing of readings with John’s gospel over the last few weeks keeps the gospel from having nothing to say in the final weeks of Ordinary time [because of its brevity].
In addition, the discourse on the Bread of Life from John, is so beautifully paired with our first reading from the Book of Kings. Jesus is the bread of angels spoken of in Kings, a bread which rejuvenated Elijah, gave him the strength to do what God wanted of him, and would later keep him from “dying,” at least in the ordinary way of man [taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire]. Jesus will amplify and expand His thoughts on the Eucharist over the next few weeks [an interruption of the interruption will occur for the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, something that rarely happens]. Nowhere are Jesus’ thoughts about the Eucharist more clear than on the “night before He died,” what we call the Last Supper. It is during that night when Jesus “takes the bread, breaks the bread, and “gives it to His disciples,” reminding them “to do this in memory of me.” We might look at these weeks in cycle A of Ordinary time as a greatly expanded Solemnity of the Lord’s Body and Blood.
The time spent reflecting on what a precious gift we have in the Eucharist is time well-spent. The Pandemic, not over just yet, has done much to interrupt the flow of ordinary life, and while it is not responsible for any diminishment in our faith in the Real Presence, it has caused many Catholics to realize they won’t necessarily go to hell should they miss a Sunday in church. When teaching college kids, who would come in for the Sunday night Mass and the church would fill up from the back, I would encourage them to sit up front by telling them if this were a rock concert you would all be gathered closely around the stage [sanctuary]. It never really worked to bring them closer, but I hoped it brought home the point of how incredible what went on upon the altar truly was.
The God of Elijah, and Moses, and all the prophets, who sent His Son into the world for our salvation, comes down and blesses the gifts offered by the priest, making them into the very body and blood of Christ. The bread of Elijah and the manna in the desert are merely weak symbols of what Jesus does at the Last Supper. Further, that bread will satisfy earthly hunger, but the bread that Jesus gives is a “living” bread, and the one who “eats this bread will live forever.”
Like the world in which we live, the Church is in a troubled state right now. Let not its present troubles, or the troubles since October 28, 2016, cause us to lose our faith in the Eucharist, truly the bread of the angels, truly the bread that renews us, supports and energizes us, and will enable us to live forever.
Like the Israelites before us, we may be tempted at times to murmur and grumble, even at the Church. The murmuring and grumbling, of disciples and Israelites alike, was no impediment for Jesus to always offer them the Bread of Life. Neither is it an impediment for us. May our hearts always long for that bread which truly is the bread of angels, and which truly is capable of enabling us to live forever.