The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of Kings.
The First and Second Books of Kings detail the rise and fall of the Israelite Monarchy and reads at times like chapters that should be included in George R Martin’s “Game of Thrones”. The human pre-occupation with power (and its disastrous consequences) and the folly elevating politics to a quasi-divine status are both on full display. Eventually the weight of corruption brings the Kingdom of David crashing down, a fall from grace that was devastating in its impact.
The excerpt from the Book of Kings we heard today is about the prophet Elijah, who was one of the greatest and most fearsome of the Israelite prophets. Elijah was not just a speaker of God’s truths, truths he often expressed in threats and warnings, but he was also a wonderworker, whose power was manifested in both blessings and curses. Elijah was a force to be reckoned with and a corrupt king and his queen stood right in his path. The king was Ahaz and the queen was Jezebel, and both provoked the wrath of Elijah and would suffer terrifying consequences.
The lesson of the story of Elijah is simply and direct: Don’t mess with the prophets of the Lord.
Today’s story of Elijah presents the prophet seeking refuge with an impoverished widow and her son who are suffering because of a devastating famine. The two are at the limit of their food reserves and are literally preparing their last meal. Elijah begs the woman for some food and the woman, believing in the prophet’s assurances that the Lord would provide for their needs, surrenders the last of her food reserves to the prophet. As a result of this gift, Elijah works a miracle, multiplying the woman’s reserves of food so that what was a last meal, becomes enough food to feed the woman, her son, and Elijah for a year.
There are many directions that one can go in an interpretation of this story. One is that it is a moral exhortation, a story with a lesson, and in this case, a story about the benefit of treating the prophets of the Lord with deference and respect. Being kind to the prophets brings with it the promise of a reward.
Limiting the interpretation of this scripture to “be kind to the prophets” is not enough, for this story, like all the stories of the Old Testament, only really and truly yields up its meaning in relation to the revelation of Christ- of whom the prophet Elijah foreshadows, meaning, that in a mysterious way, Elijah is a kind of “stand in” for Christ in the story and when we accept this, the meaning of the story becomes very interesting.
Elijah is a stand in for Christ, whom we encounter in a world that is in the midst of a spiritual famine, a world that is starving for God, and without the necessary means to feed that hunger. Our own efforts to feed our souls are paltry and limited, as represented by the woman’s desperate food reserves. We haven’t the means to feed our starving souls and what we have leads us only to death. Into this situation comes Christ, who with a power greater than that of Elijah, transforms what we offer to him into something must greater- bread becomes his Body and wine becomes his Blood and with both Christ the Lord feeds our starving souls with the food of everlasting life.
This story of Elijah and the widow is a story that foreshadows the story of Christ and his Church, a story that we ourselves participate in each time our hungry souls gather for the Mass- for Holy Communion.
You see, we do not simply receive bread and wine at Mass, but the bread and wine that we offer is transformed by Christ into a reality much greater that anything ordinary and natural. What is offered as bread and wine is transformed by Christ into his Body and Blood so that what we receive in Holy Communion is life, and not just any life, but Christ’s own divine life.
The story of Elijah and the widow is meant to call to our minds the deepest meaning and most important purpose of the Mass, which is that Christ feeds our starving souls with his divine life and in doing so, saves and redeems us (just as Elijah saved the widow and her son from the famine and redeemed them from death, so also does Christ do this for us through Holy Communion).
The meaning and purpose of the Mass is also impressed upon our minds in today’s excerpt from the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews.
We have been listening to select passages from the Letter to the Hebrews for the past few Sundays. The Letter to the Hebrews is a lengthy essay about the identity and mission of the Lord Jesus- who he is and what he does, and it utilizes imagery from the temple worship of the Israelites to advance its presentation of who the Lord Jesus is and what his mission is all about.
Today’s excerpt from the Letter to the Hebrews references a sanctuary, that is a temple, that the Lord Jesus enters into as High Priest and from which he emerges with a gift for all humanity- this gift has the power to save us from sin and death.
All of this is mystical language, symbolic language, which explains how Christ the Lord acts during the Mass as our High Priest. You see, the worship of the Church is not merely some form of faith-based entertainment- it is not just stories and songs and sermons, but the Mass is something much more wonderful- the Mass is the privileged moment when Christ gives to us a gift that can save us from the power of sin and death, and this gift is his own life, his sacrifice, and this gift is given to us in the Blessed Sacrament.
It is during the Mass that Christ, the great High Priest, emerges from the sanctuary of heaven, and gives to his people his sacrifice- his divine life. This is what the Mass is for. This is what the Mass is about. The Mass, when reduced merely to entertainment, to songs, stories and sermons, quickly becomes boring.
Yet, when the Mass is allowed to do more for us than entertain us, the experience can become far more interesting. In this regard our expectations must change from the desire to be entertained (which may or may not happen) to the desire for Holy Communion with God in Christ.
The Bible has much to say about worship, especially the worship God wants. The kind of worship God wants, he reveals in Christ and Christ reveals this worship to us every time the Mass is offered. The Mass is the worship God in Christ wants. At times the faithful may be tempted to construct a worship that they feel would be pleasing to God, or worse, construct a worship that pleases our selves. This temptation is often times manifested in elevating an element of worship, like songs or sermons, which we “like” to a status they shouldn’t have. Elements of worship like songs and sermons are important, but they can only serve God, and be what he wants them to be, when they lead us to the Eucharist. When you leave Mass your take away should never just be “that was great music” or “that preaching was excellent” but instead “God in Christ give his life to me”.
Giving into the temptation of making worship into something God doesn’t want is very dangerous, for it ultimately deprives us of the very gift that God in Christ wants to give to us- his sacrifice- the gift of Holy Communion with his own divine life.
In his Gospel Christ identifies a gift that has little or no worldly value as being more significant and pleasing to God than gifts that the world would consider to be far more impressive. A poor widow’s nearly valueless pennies are esteemed by Christ as being of greater value than gifts of great extravagance and cost. What gives?
Christ is highlighting the sacrifice inherent in the contrasting gifts- the impoverished widow gives everything, while others give only something. The impoverished widow’s sacrifice is made in humility while others who give only something give not out of love, as the widow did, but out of an ulterior motive- the motive of making themselves appear important.
The great St. Therese of Lisieux once said that “love does not calculate” and there is great wisdom in this insight.
The widow Christ observes did not calculate the cost of her gift to herself- she made her sacrifice. So it is also with Christ. He does not calculate the cost of the sacrifice he makes for us, he makes his sacrifice, and for the sake of his love for us, his sacrifice is his own life.
The lesson of Christ’s Gospel is severe, especially for all of us who are willing to give only in the measure that what we offer is recognized or whether the sacrifice we make is ultimately for our own benefit.
Christ asks that we love without calculation and that we offer to him a sacrifice that is not just something, but everything…