Food plays a prominent part in today's scripture readings (1 Kings 19: 4-8 and John 6: 41-51).
The prophet Elijah was tired and depressed. He had worked so hard and had so little to show for it. He wanted to crawl under a tree, sleep, and die. This was his response to depression ...sleep, and perhaps even the blessed oblivion of death. But God sent a messenger to his servant Elijah, a messenger who brought with him food and drink.
Now Elijah was not one of those people who responded to depression by over-eating. As we have seen, he just wanted to escape into the silent darkness of sleep. And so when after two meals and with a little nap in between, he got up refreshed and ready to continue his ministry …it was not because the food had filled the emptiness of his depression. The food was probably most welcome, but what got him on his feet again was what this food signified. Namely, that God, who had sent an angelic messenger, still cared about him, still valued him ...still loved him.
Shared bread or food can be such a powerful symbol! A symbol of unity and friendship at a marriage reception ...a symbol of ongoing life after a funeral. But note that the food itself is of limited value ...what really counts is the context within which it is shared. As Mother Theresa has been quoted saying, "We give dying people bread because they hunger and perish not just for bread, but also for love. When we hand them bread we are also offering them love."
Elijah would have understood. For it is clear that this has always been the Father's way and, as we who assist at Mass know so well, it is also Jesus' way.
"I myself am the bread of life," says Jesus in today's Gospel. With these words He brought the concept onto a wholly new dimension. So closely did Jesus identify with the symbolism of food that He incorporated it into His very essence. "I am the bread of life." Eat and be one with me ...eat and know that you are loved by me.
Elijah received comfort and found new strength in the assurance of God's caring presence as symbolized in the angel and his gift of food.
It is for us to find at least the same level of strength and assurance of God's caring presence as realized in that bread which has come down from Heaven. The bread that is Jesus Christ Himself.