Nineteenth Sunday of the Year
12 August 2012
Your eminence, fellow priests, brothers and sisters in Christ
You could be forgiven for thinking that there is something perverse in the selection of readings for this evening’s Mass, which is that of the 19th Sunday of the Year. The main theme of the readings is food. But on closer examination, it is not speaking of food in the ordinary sense of the word. In the reading from the Book of Kings we find the prophet Elizah dejected, wishing he were dead, ready to throw in the towel until he accepted the nourishment provided by the Lord and that gave him the capacity to reach Horeb, the Mountain of God.
We are told that he was given a scone and a jar of water; we can identify with that. But when we listen to the Gospel reading and hear the words of Jesus about food, it may be altogether too much to take in, especially for pilgrims on their second day of pilgrimage who would appreciate less talk and more action in the line of food and who, in any case, have an even greater need for some sleep.
“I am the bread come down from heaven,” says Jesus; “everybody who believes has eternal life,” “Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.” I can tell by your expression that many of you are not impressed and feel like telling me to come back another day and at the moment maybe I would have the courtesy to let you have a few winks in peace. Before you nod off, let me fuel your dreams.
There was once a king whose sorrow was unending. He was loved by his queen, worshiped by his subjects and feared by his enemies but he had no child. “Who will carry on my work, my name? I must have an heir!” he said. A reward was offered to anyone who could help the royal couple to fulfil their dream. Many tried, many failed; the king and queen remained bitter and childless.
One cold day an old woman came to the king and queen. Shown into the throne room, she proclaimed that a child could be theirs if the king did just one thing. “And what is that?” he asked. The old woman replied, “Your Majesty, because there is no system for washing out human waste, there is much sickness in the land. All waters are the same. Use your army and dig canals through the cities and villages so that the waste may go to one place while the water for cooking and drinking is taken from another source.”
The king commanded that a system of canals by built. The pestilence that had attacked the people for generations was now gone, but after many months there was still no sign of a child. The old woman was recalled before the throne. “You lied to me”, bellowed the king. “My good king”, spoke the woman “you have only fulfilled part of the requirement.” “You must now parcel out land to the peasants, allowing each a lot large enough for both sustenance and sale.” “Why should I give away what is mine?” the king shouted. “So that you might have one with your name to follow,” she said softly.
In any case the image of that one with his name to follow spoke so deeply to the king that he did as the old woman instructed. Every able-bodied peasant was given his own lot. For the first time in memory they could feed their families and guests with ease.
In any case no sign of a child appeared, and the king was less than civil when the old woman was brought before him again. “One last thing will ensure you of an heir. Of this I am certain,” she said, “If it does not,” said the king with a shaking voice, “you will be no more than a bad memory.” “The last thing you must do is to dismantle your army. For the last two decades, our kingdom has fought war after war. Make lasting treaties with your neighbours and dissolve the force that once fed your aggression.” For the first time in the memory of the people, young men remained at home behind plough and anvil, and young men and women danced safely at the crossroads.
Still no sign of child! The king had a scaffold erected in the throne room and the old woman was summoned. When she was told she was facing death, she said quietly, “Your majesty, your wife was barren, as was the land. Your people died of sickness, starvation and war. Look now at your land. You have given your people health, wealth and peace. You have given them a better life and your name is spoken with affection and reverence by the children of your subjects. It will be passed down to their children and to their children’s children and it will always be a name spoken with honour. Through your acts of loving kindness you will be the father of and remembered by all the children of the land.” The king paused a moment. He knew she was right. His children now would be counted as the stars and he would be forever remembered. Now, aren’t you glad you stayed awake!
One of the truths that our pilgrimage here brings home to us is that all that we own – our china, our jewellery, our house, our car, our mobile, our shoes, our clothes – we will leave them all behind. Jesus tells us not to cling to “food that perishes”, not to put all our identity there but rather to seek and work for something that is not perishable, something that endures both here and into eternity. Justice, mercy, forgiveness, fidelity, compassion, love – these may be some of the enduring things which Jesus has in mind, things that give deep joy to us on earth and are part of the travel documentation required for the journey to eternity.
The story of the childless king challenges us as does the Gospel reading. Did you feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked. Visit the sick and those in prison? These are questions that resonate on earth and rebound to heaven. Jesus, who has seen and been with God is the only one who can bring God’s gift into the world. This gift is variously described as eternal life, the bread of life, the bread that comes down from heaven, the flesh of Jesus offered for the life of the world. We enter into the eternal life of God our Father as we are fed by his Son, who gives us his own self.
Here we find ourselves at the heart of the mystery of our salvation, and at the heart of our Eucharistic belief. The Christ who feeds us is the Christ who died for us and it is in his act of dying that he feeds us. St. Paulinvites us to follow Jesus in this act of sacrifice, loving others as he has loved us, giving up our lives as an offering and sacrifice to God. The king did not get what he wanted but gained everything that he needed to enrich his own life and the lives of others. Not only did he pass the gift on but he took it with him. “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever,” says the Lord.
+Liam S. MacDaid