Angels In Our Lives
In Father Hanly’s lovely homily for 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, he looks at Elijah the Prophet and the role of angels in our lives.
First Reading: First Kings 19:4-8
Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9
Second Reading: Ephesians 4:30–5:2
Gospel: John 6:41-51
This is the third Sunday of the five Sundays dedicated in Year B, in the year we usually read St Mark’s gospel, and now we read St John’s gospel. It is all about the Eucharist and what the Eucharist means to the people of their day as well as to us today.
It is really, in a sense, the soul of the church’s teachings from the beginning of the life of Jesus to his resurrection, and it explains why we are gathered here together. For we come to the Eucharist, the thanksgiving, the representation of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in our own hearts.
Today, though, the first reading is very interesting for us, because we tend to forget about Elijah the prophet. Now, Elijah the prophet was the greatest of all prophets. There was no prophet greater than Elijah the prophet.
And how come we don’t know so much about him? Because he never wrote a word. And you say, “Well, how could he be a great prophet like Isaiah and Jeremiah who wrote these wonderful books and they’re quoted all over the place, until we remember that Jesus was also a prophet who never wrote a word. Everything that he gave was face-to-face, eye-to-eye, and heart-to-heart.
Now, Elijah was kind of the (something in Chinese), as they say in Chinese, of prophets. He was a man of great vigour, a man of great talent, he was a man we know very little about his early life, because he appears suddenly on the scene when the Israelites are in danger of betraying the Covenant and turning away from Yahweh and following the gods of the Baal, the gods of that time, further and further away.
Now, the Baals were not just one kind of god, they were a mixture of gods. And they represented, the original anyhow, represented the god of power, the god of anger, the storm, the god of the storms. He was the one that soldiers followed, because everyone knew that in power lay strength, and in strength you could overcome everything.
This is a god that we still follow today! Unfortunately, he’s as false today as he was then. Because this is a god that believed in might is right, and power is what we seek most of all in order to be accepted and to stand above our brothers and sisters. Unfortunately, it ends in mayhem and destruction, and it was leading the Israelites in the same direction.
Another Baal was the fertility Baal, the Baal of sexuality, and his temples could be seen at the top of the mountains in and around Canaan, and it would be filled with women and, so, to worship this god, you had to give yourself over, totally and completely, to wine and sexual abuse. This was the second great god.
And, of course, here comes the prophet, and his job is to bring the people back.
Back to what? Back to the only God, the God of Yahweh, the God who is kind and merciful, given to forgiveness. This is the God that the prophet was to preach.
Today, we pick him up at his worst time. He has given up. He is deep into the desert. He looks up at God and says, “Enough is enough. I am tired. I am weary. Take my life. I do not want to continue. I have nothing to hope for. And I have failed you as my fathers have failed you.”
This is a nice part of the Old Testament. All the heroes have weak points. And all the heroes come out quite humble, or they are humbled in their stories, so that we can relate to them, because nobody relates to strength and power and all this nonsense. But the tears behind our eyes well up in compassion to those who suffer. And this is when you become like God, the God of the Israelites. And this is what Elijah believed in, and this is what he gave his life to.
And he falls asleep. I think all of us have understood that when you get to the end and you say, “Enough is enough,” then the next thing you do is really fall asleep. Because you’re exhausted from your failure.
And why has he failed?
Well, because Ahab, the king, has fallen under the trance of his wife from Tyre, Jezebel. And Jezebel brought in all the people who preached these other gods, and she was destroying the name and the strength of Yahweh among the Jewish people. And even though Elijah had triumph over the ministers, the ones that she had sent for, the priests of this god, the Baal, he still lost in the long run, because Jezebel sent an army after him to kill him and destroy him.
And so he had run all the way down from the north of Israel, and now he was in the middle of the desert. And that’s when he said, “I have had enough,” and he slept.
And when he woke up, there was a meal for him, the Bible says given by an angel. It means given by a messenger of God.
He woke up and he saw a cake and a glass of water, a tureen of water. And he ate the cake and he drank the water and he was so tired he fell asleep again. And he was going towards, he was trying to escape her by going through the desert to the original Sinai mountain that Moses was. And he wanted very much to talk to God and to let him know how unhappy he was.
And then he fell asleep again. And when he awoke again, there was another cake, and this one was to last for forty days and forty nights, a symbolic number, until he himself had reached where he was going.
We say, “Who was this angel?” Well, probably, this angel was his servant who loved him and cared for him this whole time in all his adventures.
And why do we call him an angel? Because God works through people, and when people do good things, and they come in, like to save you from some embarrassment or unhappiness or that, if you are a believer, you always say what? You say, “An angel sent you.”
This is a very important part of the story of Elijah, who preaches through his stories, and not just what he says but what he does, because this is the way God works among us. He sends us angels. Angels, they might be close friends, they might be someone you just ran into. But when you reach those desolate times of your life, you will always remember that, when you awake from your sleep, you will find someone to help you. And all through the traditions of Christians, it is we are surrounded by angels, and they use the human beings that surround us and we take for granted every day.
There is a story that goes with this idea, this very important idea. The story goes like this:
There was a man who had a deep faith in God, and he loved God, and he prayed to God, and, every morning, he knew that he would go out and give his whole life to God etc. etc. And then, all of a sudden, this great storm came. And he was in his basement, and the basement was flooded, so he went up to the ground floor. And a canoe passed by, and he said, “Old man, I’m going to save you. You know, this water is going to get worse.” And he said, “No, no, no. God will save me. I believe in God. I have faith.”
The man went away and then it got deeper, so the first floor was filled with water. And he jumps up to the second floor and he peeks out the window and there is a boat there and the man on the boat says, “Old man, I am going to save you. Come on, jump in and I’ll bring you to shore.” And the old man says, “No, no. My faith is in the Lord. My faith is in God,” and he continues to pray.
Then he’s on the top of the roof and he’s looking out and the rain is still coming down. And when he is on the top of the roof, a helicopter comes down, and the helicopter man yells at him, “Old man, old man, we will rescue you.” And he says, “I don’t need to be rescued. I believe in God. God will save me.”
And so what happened was the rain got deeper, and the house went under, and the man drowned. Then he goes up to heaven and he’s quite angry. He’s up there and he can’t wait to see God, you know. So he gets in there and he meets God and he says to God, “You let me down.” He said, “Here I was telling everybody you would save me and you didn’t do anything to save me.” And God says, “Of course, I did. I sent three people and you rejected all three of them.”
This is the way God works, you see. He doesn’t work directly, like bolts from the blue. He works through those he chooses to work. He works through our friends and neighbours, and people who might not be friends and neighbours, but suddenly get an inspiration to find us out in tribulation and time and trouble and pain. And when we think nobody cares, suddenly an angel appears.
Anyhow, Elijah thinks of what he has eaten and he realises that it was just like the Jews eating the manna in the desert. It was the bread of God. And that is why this too in the story is called the bread of God. And one cake alone allowed him to walk forty days and forty nights till he got to the mountain.
And he went up the mountain and, all of a sudden, there was a storm on the mountain. And he was praying to God and saying, “What does it all mean? Why don’t you appear to me? What am I supposed to do?”
And then he goes outside, and there is a shocking thunder and lightning and the mountain shakes just as in the days of Sinai.
And then he finds out that God is not in the thunder, and God is not in the lightning. And when the thunder and the lightning pass, there’s a sweet breeze that blows in the cave, and Elijah recognised that God is in the breath, the sweet breeze.
And what does that mean? He means Elijah, which you must understand, is that it is not power and it is not self-possession and greed and these things. This is not what makes the world go round. It is the simple breeze of life itself.
And it is in this that you will always find me. For I am a God not in storms, and not in might, and not in strength that you would want your armies to have or your leaders to have. I am one who serves. I am there and I give you my daily bread. And my daily bread is the bread of kindness, and the bread of forgiveness, and the bread of love, and the bread of caring, and if you eat this each day it will change your lives.
And that is what Jesus says, “I am not going to give you bread, food. I am going to give you bread and food for your souls, so that you will know that my bread is when you learn to receive my love, for my bread is myself, and it is my love reaching out in compassion and caring and sharing and building that you will hear God and see God and understand God.” And that is what Jesus means when he says, “Unless you eat this bread, you will have no life within you.”