Whether you follow professional cycling or not, I am sure many of you are aware of the controversy that has surrounded that sport recently. American cyclist Floyd Landis appeared to have won the most elite of all races, the Tour de France . . . only to have that victory called into question after being tested for performance-enhancing drugs.
Unfortunately, cycling is not the only sport to suffer from that same controversy. The use of steroids in Major League Baseball, track and field, and other sports has caused many to call into question the credibility of some of the most famous athletes.
The sad reality is that the use of performance-enhancing drugs is not only unfair; it’s entirely unnecessary. There are natural means of preparing our bodies to function well and compete well, no matter what sport we play.
As you may already know, I myself am a runner; that is my sport of choice (the Runner’s Club still meets here on Saturday mornings at 6:30 am, if you are thinking about joining up!).
An essential part of any kind of training—for running or anything else—is diet: what we eat and what we drink, not performance enhancing drugs but regular, basic food and water.
One of the great tragedies of any marathon or major race is the sight of those who have not eaten well or drank enough water before the race. They often melt down and collapse on the side of the road, exhausted, dehydrated, unable to finish the race.
That is something like what we find in the first reading this morning. In the 1st Book of Kings, the prophet Elijah collapses on the side of the road, sits under the broom tree, and prays to God for death! It’s not a very encouraging picture, to say the least.
Now, it is important for us to look at this scene in its proper context. Elijah is without a doubt one of the greatest spiritual athletes in the entire Old Testament. Remember, Elijah is the one who went head to head with the King of Israel, Ahab, and his wretched wife, Queen Jezebel, on many different occasions. Time and again he risked his very life by calling them to task for their lack of fidelity (1 Kings 17-21). Elijah went up against the 450 prophets of Baal, challenging them in that famous contest of faith on Mount Carmel, and defeated them (1 Kings 18:16-40).
But even the greatest of all athletes, including the spiritual ones, have limits. This morning Elijah discovers his limits, and he can no longer go on. But when he comes to the end of himself—the end of all his strength, the end of his own resources, the end of his own power—it is then that God enters in and breathes new life into the prophet Elijah.
The angel of the Lord touches him, and orders him: “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!” (1 Kings 19:7). Elijah is given a hearth cake (whatever that is!) and a jug of water. After eating and drinking, we are told that, “strengthened by that food, he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb” (1 Kings 19:8).
Forty days and forty nights! Now that’s much, much longer than any marathon. And that’s the very point of the story: God is able to give us the strength we need to get through any of the difficulties we face in life. When we come to the end of our own strength, our own resources, our own power, it is then that God enters in and gives us supernatural help to get us back into the race. He gives us divine food that restores us and brings us new life.
In the Gospel this morning, Jesus says:
I am the bread of life . . . this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die . . . whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.
The Eucharist is that supernatural help, the bread from heaven, that God gives to us in our deepest need. We do not need to take performance-enhancing drugs to help us in the contest of life. We follow Jesus Christ, the performance-enhancing God! He gives us Himself—body and blood, soul and divinity—in the Holy Eucharist.
For centuries the Church has always taught us that the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, #11). Pope John Paul II says that “The Church draws her life from the Eucharist” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, # 1).
One of the sad realities of our times is that many are choosing not to partake of that bread, and not to drink the cup of the blood of Christ. A Gallup Poll taken last April showed that Rhode Island was fourth from the bottom out of all 50 states in church attendance, at 28%. Given that we are the most Catholic state in the country, that is a pretty sad figure.
If the Eucharist is the source of Christian life, then where are those who do not come to Mass receiving their strength? If the Eucharist is the high point of the Christian life, then the majority of Christians in our state are settling for something a whole lot less than the summit and goal that God has offered.
Perhaps the most tragic consequence of all is that so many people today find themselves exhausted, unfulfilled and longing for a better life than the one they’ve got. Like the prophet Elijah, they sit on the side of the road, all but ready to give up. The one thing they lack, the one thing they long for most of all, is the very thing God gives to us this morning: Himself.
This morning we are touched not by an angel; we are not given a hearth cake and a jug of water. We are touched by Christ, and given His body and His blood, to strengthen us on our way home to Him.
Might we grow to appreciate more completely in our lives this precious gift that God offers us in the Holy Eucharist. And might we make it our mission and passion in life to invite others back here to this banquet, where God alone can fill them and give them new hope.