A handful of people are head and shoulders over everyone else in the story of God gradually revealing himself to us. Elijah is one of them. In fact, it says he is the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. You remember how – representing the whole prophetic tradition – he appears with Moses on the Mountain of Transfiguration as they speak with Jesus about his forthcoming death. (Having Moses and Elijah there is a way of saying that Jesus is the one to whom the Law and the prophets point.)
Elijah’s ministry is so wonderful. For years he is touching people’s lives with the love and power of God. He is a faithful servant of the Lord, a channel of blessing for many. He is a man of prayer. He lives by the Word of God.
So . . . why do we find him depressed? What’s wrong with his faith? Why does he wish he’d never been born? Why does he want to die? It’s right there there . . . in today’s first reading. Elijah wants to die. “Lord”, he says, “I have had enough.”
Why do people get depressed? You know as well as I do . . . that’s a difficult question. Some medical conditions can bring on depression: even something like the flu, a malfunctioning thyroid gland, or maybe a hormonal imbalance after having a baby. Or just being unwell in general. If you think that your depression is related to a medi¬cal condition, then tell your doctor.
The problem might be basically psychological or emotional. You should still tell the doctor. So many people are helped by a combination of counselling and the right medication.
But sometimes the problem is primarily spiritual, and the thing we need most of all is spiritual healing, prayer, the laying on of hands, and perhaps the anointing.
(Of course, depression seldom separates neatly and clearly into categories like that, although it is often easy to see how they do exist and are intertwined. So, we need all the help we can get!)
For thousands of years, God had been drawing his people more deeply into his love, not in some special sanitised realm separate from “real” life, but right in the middle of the stinking sludge of human history, with all of its violence, abuse and bloodshed. Just before poor old Elijah’s bout of depression, he had experienced the greatest triumph of his life. Single-handedly on Mount Carmel he had brought the Israelites back from Baal and Ashtaroth to the worship of Yahweh. It’s a real blood and guts narrative, not for the faint-hearted! But, you’ve got to understand that the battle wasn’t over a few “technical theological differences.” It was about stopping the spread of “Baalism” with its frequent and terrifying rites of child sacrifice, as well as the widespread sexual abuse at the heart of the fertility cult of Ashtaroth.
The problem was that King Ahab and Queen Jezebel refused to return to the Lord. Jezebel even sent a note to Elijah saying that she’d ordered one of her minders to kill him before the day was out.
I know what you’re thinking. After such an amazing triumph over nearly a thousand violent men, why is Elijah so upset by the threat of Jezebel? Where’s his faith gone?
There are two things to say about that. First, many of us know that it doesn’t actually take much for good feelings, feelings of triumph, success and fulfilment, to evaporate. The “high” gives way to a “low.” Those who have that in their psychological makeup experience regular and enormous mood swings.
Second, if we are emotionally fragile, or prone to negative thinking, we imagine disasters, even when there are none. You know what it’s like when someone says something – perhaps without thinking – that really hurts us! They don’t mean to upset us, but that’s what happens. Or when the bank sends us what turns out to be a routine circular letter; but, even before we open the envelope, we have already begun to imagine our financial ruin.
The greatest of the prophets, fresh from his triumph on Mount Carmel, was rattled by the letter from Jezebel.
Now, look what happens: The “Angel of the Lord” comes to Elijah and gives him a meal. Elijah is nourished. He is strengthened. He can now see things in better perspective, and the fact that God provided the meal makes him feel not so alone. Then, it says, in the strength of that food Elijah walked for 40 days and 40 nights until he reached Horeb, the mount of God.
What it doesn’t say is that Elijah’s problems had gone away. He was still a wanted man with a price on his head. His circumstances were the same. But he gained strength and clarity of vision. He knew all over again that he was loved with an everlasting love! After listening to the angel, after eating, and then resting, he was able to face his problems and move forward.
It’s the same when we come to the Eucharist to feed on the Bread of Life. We leave church with the same problems we came in with. Our circumstances are the same. But we gain strength and clarity of vision. We know all over again that we are loved with an everlasting love! After hearing God’s Word, after eating, and then resting, just “lingering”in his healing presence, we are able to face our problems and move forward.
Jesus gathers us as family who are not so proud as to pretend that we are always on top of things. But some people do stay away from the Table because they are too proud to admit that they have problems. They might even be like Elijah, depressed and broken. But they’ve made things worse by going into a state of denial.
In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus talking about supplying his people with supernatural food in the wilderness:
“I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Isn't that a wonderful promise!
WE are strengthened at Mass, just by being here and sharing with the Lord and our brothers and sisters. But that’s not all. As the liturgy itself says, our fellowship is with “the whole company of heaven” - not just one angel, as in the case of Elijah!
As Elijah ate and was strengthened for his journey, the supernatural Food we receive from Jesus - the Bread of Life - the Blessed Sacrament – his very self - strengthens us for our journey through the joys and the sorrows of life, until that day when in his love he calls us home.
From glory to glory advancing, we praise thee, O Lord;
thy name with the Father and Spirit be ever adored.
From strength unto strength we go forward on Zion’s highway,
to appear before God in the city of infinite day.
Thanksgiving, and glory and worship, and blessing and love,
one heart and one song have the saints upon earth and above.
O Lord, evermore to thy servants thy presence be nigh;
ever fit us by service on earth for thy service on high.
Liturgy of Saint James;
Translated by Charles William Humphreys, 1906