Opening the Word: Banqueting with God

Elijah is hungry. Walking a day in the desert, he settles under a broom tree. This fragrant shrub, native to the Middle East, blossomed with beautifully scented white flowers.

But Elijah doesn’t notice. Tired from the journey, he falls asleep, giving up hope. He longs for death.

The God of the living intervenes. At the impetus of an angel of the Lord, representing the very presence of God, Elijah eats a hearth cake and drinks a jug of water. Surely, this meal would fill him.

But divine generosity offers even more. The angel calls once again, preparing Elijah for a long journey. Having feasted with the living God, Elijah “walked 40 days and 40 nights to the mountain of God, Horeb” (1 Kgs 19:8).

Elijah’s journey recapitulates Israel’s own journey in the desert, where they were fed with manna from heaven for 40 years. At the end of this journey, Israel entered with the presence of the Lord into the Promised Land.

And Elijah will encounter God’s presence on Mount Horeb in the whispery wind.

The crowds following Jesus in the Gospel of John were also hungry. The Word made flesh gave them bread from heaven, feeding the 5,000 with bountiful leftovers. He then went off with his disciples, calming the winds of the sea, conquering the waters. Both signs in the Gospel of John reveal the identity of Jesus as the God who feeds with the finest wheat.

Still, the crowds can’t recognize what’s happening. They cannot believe that Jesus is the bread from heaven, the very wisdom of God dwelling among humanity. If the crowds believed, they would discover the fullness of divine generosity, the Father’s decision to send His Son in the fullness of time to pitch his tent among us.

So, they murmur. They murmur just like Israel did in the desert during the Exodus. They murmur like we do when we refuse to listen to the God who speaks no longer through whispery winds but face-to-face: “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” (Jn 6:51).

Like Elijah, Israel and the crowds gathered in that desert space, we hunger. And God wants to feed us with the living God.

But how often do we refuse to acknowledge the hunger at the heart of the human condition? We imagine that the bread that gives eternal life is power and prestige, fame and fortune, political victories over our opponent.

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Such feed will not quench our ultimate hunger. We are made to feast on God’s very presence dwelling among us.

This is a presence that we are made to enjoy not just for a moment, quelling a temporary hunger. Instead, it is the presence that bestows to us the fullness of life, the pinnacle of human flourishing: eternal life with God. For ever and ever.

For this reason, we should come to every Mass as if we’re preparing to banquet with the living God. When we listen to the Word of God proclaimed in the Scriptures, when we receive Christ’s Body and Blood, we are fed by his generous hand.

And having eaten at such a feast, we go forth to offer the food of divine wisdom to the world, becoming “imitators of God … a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma” (Eph. 5:1-2).

Sated with divine wisdom, it’s time to feed the world.

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is managing director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.