by Father Mike Stubbs
When I made my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella, I walked about 460 miles, roughly the same distance as from Kansas City to Minneapolis. I averaged 12 to 15 miles a day. It took me 35 days to arrive there. I had set aside 40 days in all for my pilgrimage, so that I could rest on Sundays.
Besides my estimate of how long the pilgrimage would take, based on other pilgrims’ experiences, I chose the number 40 partly because that is a number that shows up frequently in the Bible. It is very scriptural. We see that in Sunday’s first reading, 1 Kgs 19:4-8. It tells us that Elijah “walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb.”
Walking at night makes sense in the desert. It is a way to avoid the heat of the day. But the text says that Elijah walked also during the daytime. Does that mean that he walked nonstop? Did he not sleep? Among other things, this description of Elijah’s journey may simply refer to another story in the Bible — that of Noah and the flood, which tells us: “For forty days and forty nights heavy rain poured down on the earth” (Gn 8:12).
On the other hand, the statement that Elijah walked 40 days and 40 nights may reflect his determination to reach his destination. It certainly contrasts with the passive state in which we find Elijah at the beginning of the story, when he sits down underneath a tree and waits for death.
It is the miraculous gift from God of food and water that prompts Elijah to make this turnaround in his life. An angel rouses him from his sleep, presents him with a hearth cake and a jug of water, and orders him to eat: “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you.”
This hearth cake must have been packed with energy if it lasted Elijah 40 days and 40 nights. Once again, the lack of mention of any other food may reflect the desire to emphasize the power of the food which comes from God. That is the food for the journey, which enables Elijah to keep going.
This story of Elijah helps us to reflect on our own journey, and how God feeds us to provide us with strength to continue that journey. That happens especially through the Eucharist, when Jesus comes to us as the bread of life.
This story of how Elijah was fed by God provides useful background for the Gospel readings for these midsummer Sundays, which are drawn from the bread of life discourse in John’s Gospel. Once again, God feeds us, just as Elijah was fed.