August 8; 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time; Year B

19th OT2 20 21Provision for the journey

The first reading gives us this poignant story of an angel of the Lord providing strength and encouragement in the form of a meal to the prophet Elijah, who is languishing in despair and on the verge of suicide. Think of it as a spiritual “Happy Meal.” This physical sustenance, which is also spiritual in nature, prefigures the Eucharist. The story of Elijah’s bread is also reminiscent of one of the wondrous items found in the fantabulous stories of J.R. Tolkien. Fans of Tolkien may know that he was a devout Catholic and that his writings made no secret of his Catholic faith. Of all the Catholic parallels in his writings, lembas, the Elven way bread, is perhaps the strongest as it bears a striking resemblance to the Eucharist.
The attributes of this Elvish bread and instructions on how to eat it are described in Tolkien’s book, “Eat a little at a time, and only at need. For these things are given to serve you when all else fails… One will keep a traveler on his feet for a day of long labour.” Yes, this bread is strength for the weary and food for the journey!

This is how we describe Holy Communion for someone near to, or in danger of dying - Viaticum, a Latin word which literally means “provision (or food) for the journey”. Just as the characters of Tolkien’s universe received renewed strength and purpose to complete their mission, the Eucharist received as Viaticum, gives renewed strength in body and spirit to those who are sick and dying, and in fact to all of us who trod through the “shadow of the valley of death.” Tolkien was most certainly aware of this connexion when he wrote to his son with these words, “"The only cure for sagging or fainting faith is Communion.”

The allusion to food for the journey is similarly found in today’s gospel - the second instalment to the Bread of Life Discourse. The gospel begins with a controversy: the crowds found it disturbing that our Lord should describe Himself as the Bread that comes down from heaven. They were scandalised not because of His use of this metaphor nor because they thought that He was speaking literally instead of figuratively. He had yet to associate that bread with His flesh. The real reason is that they found it arrogant on His part to even claim that He was on par with both Moses and the manna, which Moses made to fall from heaven.

Last Sunday’s passage gives us the context for today. The crowds had asked the Lord for a sign as proof that He had come from God, and they cited the manna as an example of the kind of sign they’re looking for. In response, our Lord tells them that the manna foreshadowed the “true bread from heaven” that God would give His people, and then He unabashedly announces that He Himself (and ultimately his body and blood in the Eucharist) is the “bread which came down from heaven”. If you understand that the Exodus is the defining event of their identity and covenantal relationship with God, you would understand His audience’s outrage. No one would dare to claim that there is something greater than the event of the Exodus and its hero, Moses. But here comes our Lord Jesus claiming exactly that.

When our Lord says that His flesh is given “for the life of the world”, He means that His flesh is the new manna, the “true bread from heaven” that is intended to sustain all of us on our journey to our heavenly homeland, just as the manna in the Old Testament fed the Israelites on their journey to the Promised Land. But this is no mere equivalence. Our Lord makes this stark distinction: “Your fathers ate the manna in the desert and they are dead; but this is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that a man may eat it and not die.” Although the manna sustained the Israelites on their journey to the Promised Land just as lembas did for the hobbits, neither form of sustenance could guarantee them immortality. Where these foods failed, the Eucharist succeeds in providing us with the antidote to death and the elixir immortality.

The Eucharist quite literally sustains our spiritual lives. Without it, as the Lord says, we “have no life” in us. In other words, it helps to sustain the life of grace within us, the grace that we receive at baptism and that we believe will flower into the life of heaven once we die, just as earthly food sustains our physical lives. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, the Eucharist “preserves, increases, and renews the life of grace,” “separates us from sin,” and “preserves us from future mortal sins” (CCC 1392-1393, 1395). The Eucharist is food for our journey home, food that helps us to survive the hostile desert of this world and to arrive safely at our heavenly homeland.

As we witness how this pandemic continues to claim new victims despite severe lockdown measures and without any hint of an end to this suffering, I can assure you of this, just when you feel like giving up and resigning yourself to despair, our Lord will send help from heaven, as Elijah discovered in the first reading. Like Elijah’s bread, which took him from black despair to strength of purpose and clarity of mission, the Eucharist can take us from the darkness of the moment and empower us for the voyage ahead. For now, you cannot receive our Lord in Holy Communion in a physical way, but only do so spiritually. But do not lose sight of your purpose and God’s sovereignty over our situation. He will not let us be tested beyond our endurance but will continue to feed us with the spiritual food of His invisible grace until He can feed us with the true bread from heaven, the Eucharist, when you return to church.

In a letter to his son, Michael, Tolkien gives the following advice, an advice which is most certainly meant for us all, especially today,

“Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament… There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste—or foretaste—of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires.”