Learning From Elijah’s Despair

August 9, 2015
First Reading: 1 Kings 19:4-8

Every now and then, giving up looks like the best option. When we’ve tried everything and nothing has worked, when we are tired and burnt-out, it seems like just not trying at all anymore will solve the problem by leaving it permanently unsolved. Yet God rarely wants us to throw up our hands and walk away. In fact, sometimes he even sends a messenger to remind us of the role we have to play.

Elijah’s Despair

In this Sunday’s first reading, we find the prophet Elijah in a fit of despair. Elijah had been trying to woo the people of Israel away from the false god, Baal, and back to the worship of the true God. He had just won a great victory over the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel, when God sent down fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice he had prepared. It looked like finally the balance of the scales had tipped in Elijah’s favor and the people would turn to follow the Lord. But when the news gets back to Jezebel, the queen of Israel and a big supporter of Baal worship, she is not happy and seeks to kill Elijah. So Elijah flees into the wilderness to escape her murderous intentions.

He goes from the heights of victory to the depths of despair. At first, he is trying to preserve his life by escaping, but then he actually prays for death. He can’t see a way out of his situation. Elijah is ready to give up and just die. He looks up to heaven and says, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am no better than my fathers” (1Kgs 19:4 RSV). Elijah recognized his powerlessness over the situation and thought that giving up was the solution. But God, in his power, had different ideas.

Under a Weeping Broom

In his despair, Elijah takes refuge from the sun in the shade of a broom tree. (Some have suggested that this was the beautiful Retama raetam with white flowers.) Noticeably, in his depressed state, Elijah hides from the light. In fact, another biblical prophet prayed for death in the shade of a plant too (see Jonah 4:8). Shade, of course, is an essential survival tool in a hot desert, but Elijah’s shrinking away from the light might symbolize his shrinking away from God’s calling on his life.

A Rejuvenating Breakfast

After letting the prophet mope for a bit, the angel of the Lord taps him on the shoulder and commands him to eat. Note how “pro-life” God appears here. He is not willing to let his prophet die through voluntary self-starvation, but actually commands him to eat (1 Kgs 19:5) and provides him with a special meal (19:6). The meal consists of water and a round flat loaf of bread baked on hot coals. This is not an elaborate feast, but a simple affair. Yet this meal miraculously sustains Elijah for a forty-day and forty-night journey.

Bread for the Journey

This meal is truly “bread for the journey,” one of the names for the Eucharist. Indeed, this is why we read this passage in conjunction with John 6, where Jesus describes the new “bread for the journey” which he will provide. Like Elijah’s bread, which took him from black despair to seek out the Lord at Mt. Horeb, the Eucharist can take us from the darkness of sin and empower us for the voyage ahead. If we lose sight of our purpose, get down in the dumps, or find ourselves wallowing in the shade of a broom tree, the Eucharist can bring us back to God’s plan for us. It can sustain us when we feel like giving up.

The Second Test

Elijah eats the meal sent by God, but then he lies back down! He receives the good gift that God gave, but doesn’t respond the way God wants. He is still ready to die under that tree. But fortunately, the Lord sends his angel back to Elijah to rouse him a second time. He calls Elijah on—to eat more, to drink more, and to get up and go. I think this story shows us that it is possible to receive the Eucharist and yet to not be open to its transformative power. It is tempting to function automatically, to receive, and to lie back down, to pretend that we did not receive an infusion of grace. Yet when we are open and listening, ready to receive what God offers, we won’t just give up again, but allow ourselves to be sustained, to be nourished for the journey.

The end of the reading tells us that Elijah is headed for Horeb, that is, Mt. Sinai. It is the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments, encountered God in the burning bush, and where the Israelites saw and heard his presence. It is the holy mountain of God’s presence. Elijah makes a pilgrimage there to find God speaking to him in a still, small voice.

Learning From Elijah’s Despair

Elijah’s encounter with the all-too-common low point after success shows us a handful of beautiful truths. Even when we feel like giving up, God doesn’t want us to give up, and he will even send help our way so we can keep on going. Not only that, but he regularly gives us refreshment, food for the journey, in the mystery of the Eucharist, the “source and summit of the Christian life.” That spiritual nourishment can prepare us for what lies ahead and continually strengthen us to do what he calls us to do. In addition, Elijah’s acknowledgement of his powerlessness allows room for God’s power to work. Sometimes we just need to get out of his way and let him change us. The moment of despair and the temptation to give up can end badly, or it can be the place from which we bounce back, relying on the Lord to sustain us.

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Mark Giszczak (“geese-check”) was born and raised in Ann Arbor, MI. He studied philosophy and theology at Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, MI and Sacred Scripture at the Augustine Institute of Denver, CO. He recently received his Ph. D. in Biblical Studies at the Catholic University of America. He currently teaches courses in Scripture at the Augustine Institute, where he has been on faculty since 2010. Dr. Giszczak has participated in many evangelization projects and is the author of the CatholicBibleStudent.com blog. He has written introductions to every book of the Bible that are hosted at CatholicNewsAgency.com. Dr. Giszczak, his wife and their daughter, live in Colorado where they enjoy camping and hiking in the Rocky Mountains.

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