Have you ever thought about how many athletes competed in the Tokyo Olympics that just wrapped up? There were so many that Japan had to build an Olympic village to house them. For instance, over 2000 athletes competed in one or more of only 43 track and field events.
It’s clear that the vast majority of athletes went home without winning a gold, silver or bronze medal. The winners will go on to be praised and rewarded. What happens to the others – those who lost? They return home, frequently to be forgotten or ignored. Especially in the US where we are so spoiled that we often overlook those who won ‘only’ a silver or bronze. How many of those who lost the race will learn from their experience and emerge better people for it – more fully human, more fully alive?
Elijah in our first reading today knew about losing. He stood up against the wife of the King when she tried to impose a pagan religion on Israel, one that practiced child sacrifice. As a result, he was being pursued by the army, staying one step ahead as he fled south into the desert.
Finally, he lies down, utterly spent and defeated. He prays for death saying: “This is enough, O LORD!”. Then, exhausted, he fell asleep, only to be awakened by an angel who brought him bread and a jug of water. Again, he sleeps, and again the angel orders him to eat and drink. Sustained by the heavenly bread brought by the angel he rises up and continues his pilgrimage to Mount Horeb, the same mountain on which Moses received the 10 commandments.
Do you ever feel spent and exhausted? Let me rephrase that – how many times in your life have you felt spent and exhausted? Is today one of those times? No one, I think, escapes it. When the bills keep coming, and the promotions don’t, the baby screams all night, or bad news multiplies.
Maybe on those days you feel as weak and defeated as an Olympic runner who trains for years only to finish in the middle of the pack, or worse. Maybe you felt as spent and exhausted as the prophet Elijah. Perhaps you prayed, “This is enough, Lord!”
Losing has a way of focusing you on what is essential and showing what you can do without. In this way losing can be a far greater occasion for true growth as a human being than winning. It teaches you that you can’t go it alone. Looking back at your life, you might see that those occasions when you cried out “Enough!” left you more compassionate, more caring. More truly human.
In today’s Gospel Jesus is inviting us to become more truly human. Stop murmuring among yourselves, he says, and instead turn to me. I am the destiny and fulfillment of all the offspring of Eve. Look for your sustenance from the bread come down from heaven, the bread of life, the bread that strengthens you on your pilgrimage to God.
Interestingly, Jesus became the source of life for us not by winning, but by losing. It is a mystery and a paradox. Our faith is filled with paradoxes, mysteries so difficult to convey to the intellect yet so close to the heart. God becomes man. The folly of the cross is wisdom. The greatest are the smallest. And the ultimate paradox – life comes from death; Jesus’ flesh gives life to the world.
What is significant about Christ’s death is not his losing, but his unfaltering love for us as he handed himself as a sacrificial offering to God. That love sustained him in the midst of torture, humiliation, and death. That love plunged into the lowest depths of what it means to be human, and drank deeply of the pain of losing, of death. His love for us sustained him on his journey from death back to life. Death is strong, for it can rob us of the gift of life. Love too is strong, for it can restore us to a better life.
Like Elijah, we experience defeat and exhaustion. Like Elijah, bread from heaven gives you the strength to rise from where you have fallen. Jesus is the living bread that came down from heaven. Jesus promises that the losing, the exhaustion, the deaths we suffer here on earth are not the end, never the end. In his love for us he gives his flesh for the life of the world. It is the bread that sustains us on our journey.
As we remember Jesus’ resurrection today, like we do every Sunday, we contemplate the cross, the sign of defeat and losing but also a sign of victory. We celebrate, yes, celebrate Jesus’ time of betrayal, ordeal and death. We celebrate because these events led to resurrection. We know all about betrayal, ordeal and death; they are very real in our lives. We don’t yet know eternal life, or not yet fully. Jesus asks us to believe in him and in his love, and believe in the eternal life he promises. Jesus is the source and summit of faith, the source, summit and fulfilment of life.
Faith in Jesus’ love makes us capable of tolerating losing and defeat, of bearing our failures patiently, even those of our sins. Jesus’ love makes us capable of rising up and continuing our pilgrimage to God.
Because faith is the deciding factor between victory and defeat.