Ben O’Neill, a student of Peterhouse, Cambridge, who has been serving as Ministry Experience Scheme intern of Christ Church Vienna since August 2018 as part of a year abroad, draws on the Old Testament lectionary reading, 1 Kings 19.1-4, [5-7], 8-15a.
‘Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire, o still small voice of calm, o still small voice of calm.’ These words from the hymn ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’ describe something of a moment of tranquillity in the midst of stressful life. Our 1 Kings reading on which they are based is an encounter of calm in such circumstances. Elijah is on a difficult journey as he flees from Jezebel who is after his life. The previous chapter has been very exciting for Elijah, but he is now feeling a great sense of despair. Elijah has had, in the previous chapter, a stand-off on Mount Carmel. The prophets of the cult of the pagan god Baal join him on the top of the mountain. Elijah and the pagan prophets build altars for sacrifice. Both ‘teams’ pray for fire to be sent from above to perform the sacrifice, and it is Yahweh who sends down fire from heaven. Elijah, having ordered for the pagan priests and prophets to be put to death, is goes on the run from Queen Jezebel.
This whole section of 1 Kings is framed as this journey, his journey from Mount Carmel to Mount Horeb. It’s a journey that Elijah cannot make in his own strength, but rather it must be made in the strength of God. God reaches out to him in two separate encounters to give him that strength, reaching into that frailty, in that time of need, so that he can continue on his journey: ‘Arise and eat, because otherwise the journey will be too difficult for you.’
In the first encounter, God feeds Elijah; in the second encounter, God speaks to Elijah. God feeds and speaks to us. These two ways of encountering God: through food and nourishment, and through his word, are expressed in the perfect balance between Word and Sacrament that has shaped Anglican liturgy since its inception. We gather Sunday by Sunday in our respective church buildings across the diocese, in these sacred spaces, in order to encounter God in these two ways – by food and by his holy word – to be nurtured and sustained on our own journeys both as individuals and as a community. We gather to be fed.
God reaches out to us in the most holy sacrament of Holy Communion to nurture us, to feed us, to strengthen us so that we can be given the grace to persevere and continue on our journey with him. As it has been referred to in both hymns and liturgy, it is the food of pilgrims.
God also speaks to us, as he spoke to Elijah. This isn’t the first encounter with God that has happened on Mount Horeb. It was also the mountain on which Moses encountered the burning bush, the mountain on which Moses received the Ten Commandments. The angel tells Elijah to ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ I wonder if we try too hard to find God in exciting, grand places… Elijah looks for God in the earthquake, the thunder, the strong wind, the fire, all features of Moses’ vision of God on the same mountain, in the giving of the Ten Commandments and the burning bush… But it is in the silence, the moment of calm, that Elijah discovers the presence of God. We too, with Elijah, may want to experience our faith in miraculous, unexpected ways. But sometimes, we need the reminder to look for God in the ordinary, in our everyday relationships, in creation, in the world around us, prompted of course by the Eucharist, in which God gives himself fully to us in the most mundane elements of bread and wine.
So, when we gather on a Sunday, let us ask ourselves: for what have we come here today? To be healed and fed? To hear God’s Word? To experience his healing presence, to sustain us? God feeds us with bread and wine, his body and blood. God speaks to us through his Word faithfully treasured and passed on down the centuries. And so, let us recognise our dependence on God, that we can’t make the journey of life in our own strength – and open our hearts and minds to listen and to be fed. And let us, having been fed ourselves, go out into the world to invite others to make this life-giving journey with us.