As I mention every three years, what makes Sunday’s first reading notable isn’t that God takes care of Elijah the prophet, saving him from thirst and starvation during his escape to Mt. Horeb (another name for Mt. Sinai). God’s loving care shines clearly through when an angel gives the prophet enough bread and water to complete the journey.

But there’s a deeper message in the narrative (I Kings 19: 4-8). The story doesn’t have a "happy ending." After Elijah finally walks "forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God," Yahweh tells him He doesn’t want him to be there!

My old teacher Carroll Stuhl-mueller once mentioned that, no matter how important Mt. Sinai is for Jews, no biblical Jew except Elijah ever returns there after they enter the Promised Land. Given our modern concepts of religion, we’d probably erect a huge, expensive shrine on the mountaintop and shuttle generous pilgrims to the site. Yet those who actually experienced Yahweh on that mountain didn’t even disclose its exact location. The place we refer to as Mt. Sinai today is just one of several possible locations for "the mountain of God."

Beyond Sinai

The people who encountered Yahweh on this holy mountain believed that what transpired there wasn’t an event to be remembered and commemorated only at that specific spot. Rather, it was something which inspired and strengthened them to go far beyond that place. They could recall it no matter where they were or what they were doing.

Elijah’s return is a shirking of the ministry Yahweh gave him. Instead of doing something to rid Israel of Queen Jezebel’s evil control, the prophet runs to Horeb for security and to avoid his God-given responsibility. He quickly discovers that God’s more interested in action than devotion.

Those who choose our liturgical readings seem to have omitted the last part of the I Kings narrative because it doesn’t mesh with John’s theology about the Eucharistic bread (Jn 6: 41-51). "I am the living bread that came down from heaven," Jesus proclaims: "whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I give is my flesh for the life of the world."

Omitting the negative section of the Elijah narrative gives the impression that Yahweh’s providing bread for the prophet’s journey parallels Jesus’ providing bread for our journey.

Strength for journey

Had we been given the whole story, we might have reflected on how we also misuse the Eucharistic strength God daily gives us. Jesus doesn’t give us His body and blood only to inspire security, schmaltzy feelings in our heart, feelings that would accompany a trip to Mt. Sinai or a visit to the Upper Room. This special food and drink strengthens us to leave such security so we can carry out the work God gives each of us to accomplish.

As usual, Paul hits the theological nail square on the head when he writes to the Ephesians about their having been "sealed for the day of redemption" (Eph 4: 30-5: 2). The Apostle is probably referring to their being "sealed" in Baptism. But he’s more concerned with what that event strengthened them to do than with commemorating the event itself.

Because they were sealed that day, "all bitterness, fury, anger, shouting and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ."

According to our sacred authors, people of faith must always be vigilant. They could easily fall into the trap of thinking that by simply remembering and honoring a special event, they’re actually accomplishing what God intended them to accomplish when He staged the event in the first place.

(8/7/03)