Get to daily Mass. If you can’t get to Mass daily, try at least to go on Fridays as well as Sunday in gratitude for Christ’s sacrifice. Maybe you can go another day or two per week as well.
Have you ever felt unappreciated? Imagine how Elijah felt in 1 Kings 19. He had just brought an end to drought and famine through his intercession, had rid the land of a host of false prophets, and had run something like thirty miles in the rain to bring the good news to the capital city. And what thanks did he get? Queen Jezebel vowed to take his life. So now, rather than being honored as a hero, he found himself fleeing for his life into the desert. Discouragement, despair, and self-pity are understandable in these circumstances.
Yet Elijah points to another whose kindness is met with even more shocking ingratitude. Jesus healed, fed, and raised from the dead many more than Elijah. He preached to multitudes of weary, downtrodden people who were enlivened by his words. Where were these on Good Friday morning when the crowd was given a choice between Jesus and Barabbas?
In Jesus’s mouth we find no words of self-pity. He prays instead that his captors be forgiven, “for they know not what they do.” The words that some interpret as despairing, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me,” are really a prophetic utterance indicating that Psalm 22, where these words are found, is being fulfilled in what is happening to him.
Jesus did not undertake his mission to please the crowds or to bask in the waves of their adulation. He had no illusions about us and no need of our gratitude. After all, he is God. What then was he doing it all for? The rigors of his public ministry, the horror of his suffering and criminal’s death—how do we interpret it? St. Paul tells us: “He gave himself for us as an offering to God, a gift of pleasing fragrance” (Ephesians 5:2).
It was a gift—for us, for the Father. He walked in what Ephesians calls the way of love. Agape or charity, the kind of love we are dealing with here, is precisely this—the pure gift of self.
But we are not God. How can we love this way when even the prophet Elijah wrestled with despair and self-pity in the face of rejection? The answer for us is the same as the answer for him. God provided supernatural food which gave Elijah the energy to go on, to keep walking through the dry, blistering heat all the way from southern Israel to the Sinai desert, forty days’ worth of desert journey. The food he was given must have been some powerful nourishment indeed!
We are dealing here with what the Church Fathers, following St. Paul, called a “type,” a prefigurement of a New Testament reality. In John 6 we learn that this new food is Jesus’s very Body and Blood offered to us under the signs of bread and wine. Jesus tells us that the manna given the Israelites to sustain them in their desert journey is another “type” of this new, supernatural nourishment.
In the Sacrament of the altar, Jesus holds nothing back from us. He gives us his whole self, his humanity and his divinity, including that mysterious divine love of the Trinity, agape—the self-giving love that empowers jesus and the saints to love without counting the cost, to love to the end.
To love in this way, for us human beings, is not natural. It is supernatural. To do it we need supernatural food, food that causes the eternal life of God to course through our veins. This, in fact, is what the Eucharist is—heavenly food for the desert journey.
There certainly are moments of joy this side of heaven. But the way of the Christian always involves the way of the cross. At some point, like Elijah, we must pass through the dark valley of misunderstanding and the desert of ingratitude. It is only through an intimate union with Christ, deepened and nourished by the sacrament of his body and blood, that we’ll have the power to complete that journey and to do so with a smile instead of a scowl.
Marcellino D’Ambrosio is the author of
40 Days, 40 Ways: A New Look at Lent.