The Moment of Defeat is the Moment of Revelation
(Readings: 1 Kings 19:4-8; Ephesians 4:30-5:2; John 6:41-51)
Introduction to Mass
In the gospel reading this Sunday Jesus again describes himself as the bread of life – our contact with him nourishes us spiritually. The symbolism is the same in the first reading, where God provides nourishment and strength to the prophet Elijah. Elijah is surprised to discover that he deepens his knowledge and acquaintance with God when he feels defeated and abandoned by God rather than in his moments of triumph and victory when he felt certain that God was supporting him.
To begin Mass we think of the times when we have failed to sense the approaches God makes to us. We ask God to forgive us and to help us to be open to the impact of his grace.
The prophet Elijah is one of the main biblical characters who came to stand as a symbol of all the individuals who felt called to retire from human society into the solitude of the desert – or, in Elijah's own case, into the inaccessible mountain regions – in order to search for God and to try to discern God’s will through intense prayer and contemplation.
In the first reading this Sunday we find Elijah at a certain point in his relationship with God where he’s facing a spiritual crisis, a collapse of his motivation.
The background to this crisis is that Elijah had recently taken on the priests of one of the pagan cults of Old Testament times in a sort of contest, and won. But instead of being congratulated for achieving a great triumph for the one true God, Elijah found that he had angered the queen, Jezebel - so much so, that he had to flee the country under sentence of death.
The point where today's first reading picks up his story is after the contest, when Elijah is in hiding, in exile, worn out and demoralised and - if his own statements are to be taken seriously - wanting to die. “I've had enough,” he says to God, “just take my life now”.
And of course, as happens so often in this history of God's dealings with the human race, it's the moment of defeat that becomes the moment of revelation. It's the experience of failure, rather than success, that becomes the moment where we get to know God more deeply.
What happened to Elijah at this point in his life is what happens to a lot of people at a certain stage in their relationship with God. And that is, that it's only when they've somehow reached the lowest point, and when they've exhausted all their own resources, their human resources, that God gets a look-in.
Elijah thought he had achieved great things for the sake of God. His victory over the pagan priests had had an element of the spectacular about it. But it turned out that God didn't particularly want spectacular achievements or impressive results of that kind. It turned out that that experience, which had seemed such a triumph, was only the preliminary stage in Elijah's relationship with God.
Closer acquaintance with God only took place for Elijah after his experience of weariness, failure and feeling crushed. It was only then that God could step in and start to provide encouragement and strength, so that Elijah could keep going. That's how I think we should interpret these references to an angel from God appearing and providing bread and water.
We can apply the example of Elijah to ourselves and see Elijah as an example and even a warning about certain trends in our own personal spiritual life, or the spiritual condition of the whole Church community, for that matter.
In our highly commercialised society, one of the dangers facing the members of the Church is that we start thinking of Christian life as something we can make measurable, and successful, by our own efforts and strategies, like increasing the market share of some product.
In fact there seems to be a growing tendency among church leaders and their teams of advisors to take a very uncritical attitude to modern business techniques and marketing values, as if they're morally neutral, as if they're only about the methods we use, and they don't affect the content of the Christian message.
The result is that the energies of Church members are now often absorbed in planning spectacular crowd events, for example, or launching vast re-organisation plans, or producing campaigns of church renewal with all the marketing slogans, tee-shirts, coffee-mugs and key-rings that go along with them.
We make the same mistake as Elijah did before he got to know God well: we think that we’re doing God’s work or making God known by staging grand displays, fuelled by our own purely human resources in fact, and achieving purely human results.
It's always easy to deceive ourselves into thinking that we're busy doing God's work when really we're absorbed in our own glorification.
One of the reasons why modern church life is often so badly infected with bad temper and rivalry and power struggles - all the things Saint Paul is warning against in the second reading today - is because so much of the hectic activism that we've got in the Church now isn't really rooted in God at all. It doesn't get beyond the human desire to control and manage things, to impose our will on the situation, to produce measurable results and visible successes we can take credit for.
And I would suggest that as in the case of Elijah, trying to deal with the great mystery of God on that level is only the preliminary stage in our relationship with him. It's the stage of a more or less superficial faith.
The real God doesn't want spectacle or grandiosity. He wants depth. What God leads us to isn't empire building, or some increase in statistical "results". He leads us to depth of communion with him and depth of dependence on him, where he's the one who's nourishing us, encouraging us and constantly changing us so that we come more and more to resemble him.
Very often - also as in Elijah's case - it's only when our more or less shallow faith is exploded by defeat or crisis, or when we have the experience of all our strivings achieving nothing, that we can start to see God in his true character and start to get to know him more accurately.
So although Elijah isn't really one of the major figures as far as our own Christian spirituality is concerned, hopefully his story - which comes round in the liturgy fairly regularly - is one that we can learn from and feel encouraged by.
Hopefully, instead of being crushed by the defeats and humiliations that we experience in our lives, we'll be able to treat them in the same way that Elijah was led to do - as events which always have the potential to bring us into closer communion with God.