Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Food for the Journey

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

In J.R. Tolkien’s epic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, we are introduced to lembas, the waybread of the Elves. A small amount of this supernatural nourishment will sustain a traveller for many days. The Elves of Lothlorien made a gift of this miraculously nutritious food to the members of the Fellowship of the Ring, with this piece of advice. “Eat little at a time, and only at need. For these things are given to serve you when all else fails.” In the words of Tolkien himself, “This food had a virtue without which the characters of Frodo and Sam would long ago have lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam’s mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats. And yet this waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as travellers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.”

If you understood how Tolkien drew great inspiration from his profoundly Catholic approach to life, you would then certainly see the Eucharistic overtones in this food baked by the immortal Elves, literally the “bread of angels”. By his own admission, Tolkien once wrote, “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” In fact, two of the great loves in the hidden world of Tolkien's imagination were the Eucharist and Our Lady, - upon which all “perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded.”  By way of encouraging his son, he once wrote: “Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament ... There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth ... which every man's heart desires”.

Just as Tolkien’s lembas points to the past in alluding to the Eucharist, today’s first reading from the Old Testament is a beautiful foreshadowing of the Blessed Sacrament. The scene begins with the story of Elijah fleeing into the wilderness of Judah after having fled from the clutches of Ahab, King of Israel, and his queen Jezebel, who was out to wreak revenge against Elijah for having slaughtered her pagan prophets. Now in the desert, a landscape that reflects his inner struggles, Elijah is tired and is at the point of despair. Under the broom tree, he pleads for God to take his miserable life. It is the prayer of so many of us, who have striven for the good, defended the truth, and remained faithful to God in the face of adversity, and yet find ourselves standing alone, friendless, and apparently without any hope of success in our efforts. And then the angel miraculously appeared and touched him whilst saying, “Get up and eat.” And when he looked up, he saw laid before him, a scone baked on hot stones and a jar of water. Indeed, out of the darkness of his life, in the midst of frustration, and at the moment when all seemed lost, God provided him with food, bread of the angels.  

The scene of Elijah being fed by the Angel is often seen by the Church as an Old Testament allegory to the Eucharist, especially to the Eucharist being given as “viaticum.” “Viaticum” literally means food “to take with us on the journey.” The Latin word once denoted the provisions necessary for a person going on a long journey—the clothes, food, and money the traveller would need along the way. The viaticum was vital provision for an uncertain journey. Fittingly, the early church employed this image to speak of the Eucharist when it was administered to a dying person. The viaticum, the bread of one’s last Communion, was seen as sustenance for Christians on their way from this world into another, “food for passage through death to eternal life.” This is the food which Jesus describes as “the bread that comes down from heaven, so that a man may eat it and not die.” Thus, it is no ordinary food. In fact, Jesus identifies himself with this food, “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever, and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.”

Contrary to popular perception, viaticum, the Eucharist is considered to be the sacrament that is proper to the dying Christian. A popular misconception is to place the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick in this role. The reason why viaticum, or the Last Communion is regarded as the final sacrament is because it is the completion and crown of Christian life on this earth, signifying that the Christian follows the Lord to eternal glory and the banquet of the heavenly kingdom.

But the Eucharist is not only that necessary food for our final passage through death to eternal life. The Eucharist is necessary food for our entire life’s journey, our daily sustenance, “our daily bread”. In a sense every Eucharist we receive is “viaticum,” necessary provision to take with us on the journey, vital nourishment to keep us alive spiritually.  In the privilege of receiving the true presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist, we take into us and with us the One whose whole life was an act of love—healing, forgiving, feeding and inspiring and rescuing others.  While celebrating the Solemn Feast of Corpus Christi this year, Pope Francis reminded the faithful that it is the Eucharist which binds us to Christ, a “feast” we must partake of in order to avoid falling into despair. He preached that “the body of Christ is the bond which unites you to him: eat it, or you will have no part in him. The blood is the price he paid for your redemption: drink it, lest you despair of your sinfulness.”

Therefore, every soul who struggles with loneliness, alienation, setbacks, failure, crisis, disappointment, and depression needs this waybread for our journey. And the journey is never easy. It is often a long trek, sometimes through the bleakest of landscapes, towards the promised land, our Heavenly homeland. Sometimes we give way to the longing for the comforts of culture’s captivity and drown in the world’s materialistic allures. Sometimes we yield to the temptation to sit beneath the broom tree of despair and wish for death. But today’s readings remind us that even in our weakest moments, even in our darkest hour, even when we stumble and grumble, even when we sometimes lose sight of the goal, God does not forsake us. Christ continues to feed us with this divine food, giving strength to endure. It is the food that will serve us “when all else fails.” And so we do not lay down to die; we walk on, from exile toward home, from shadows and appearances to beholding God face to face.

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