By Debie Thomas
When I was a little girl growing up in Boston, our family vacations involved long road trips. Every summer, my father would invite extended family members — aunts, uncles, cousins — to join us, pack everyone into a fifteen passenger van, and hit the road for a week or two. Toronto, Niagara Falls, Washington D.C, and Disney World are some of the places I remember visiting.
What I remember more clearly than the destinations, though, is the food we ate along the way. Before each trip, my mom would hole up in her kitchen with a few of my aunts, and prepare a spectacular assortment of snacks and meals for the road. Fried plantains and banana chips; rice-flour-based “breads” like appams and idlis; dosas stuffed with spicy potatoes; crispy lentil patties called “vadas;” chicken biryani wrapped in single-serving aluminum foil “pockets;” and sweet cardamom cake for dessert.
These were our “journeying foods,” and they made up at least half the fun (and the mess!) of each summer adventure. Sometimes we’d eat in the van, passing brown paper bags of banana chips and vadas back and forth between the rows of seats. Sometimes, my father would pull over to a rest stop, my mother would spread a bedsheet out on the grass, and we’d feast right there by the highway.
On none of those trips did it occur to my parents to skip the work and get takeout at McDonalds instead. Preparing, serving, and sharing our own journeying foods — foods rich in cultural associations, family memories, and cherished scents and flavors — was a precious and essential part of our vacations.
Of course, those journeys were leisurely ones, and the foods that accompanied them were consumed light-heartedly and with pleasure. But I remember other journeys, too. And other journeying foods. I remember the night my grandfather died suddenly and without warning, necessitating my mother’s emergency flight back to India to attend his funeral. As Mom mourned and cried and packed, my aunts streamed into our house to stuff warm Tupperware dishes into her carry-on luggage. They wanted her to eat something, anything. They wanted her to feel nourished, even as she grieved.
I remember the treacherous drives my father would sometimes make for work during icy Boston winters, and the flasks of strong coffee my mother always brewed for him before he left home, to keep him alert behind the wheel.
And I remember the huge pots of stew my parents brought to my house when I was recovering from childbirth — sore, hormonal, tired, and overwhelmed by my colicky newborn. “To build your strength back up,” my mother said each time she handed me a steaming bowl and insisted that I empty it. “Motherhood is a long journey. You need to be strong.”
In this week’s Old Testament reading, the prophet Elijah finds himself on a journey of his own — an arduous journey filled with peril and terror. We find him in the wilderness at the end of his strength, literally asking God to kill him so that he won’t have to face the hardships of another day.
The backdrop to this lection is Elijah’s dramatic and violent defeat of Baal’s prophets in 1st Kings 18. In a mountaintop scene worthy of a blockbuster action film, Elijah calls down fire from heaven, decimating his opponents and proving to everyone present that Yahweh is the true God.
But when the showdown is over, Elijah is not elated; he’s frightened, depressed, and suicidal. Queen Jezebel, incensed by Elijah’s success, issues him a death warrant, and so Elijah flees for his life. After many hours of running, he finally collapses under a solitary broom tree, prays for death, and falls asleep.
What follows is one of the most gentle and tender passages in the Old Testament. Elijah awakens to the touch of an angel, who says to him, “Get up and eat.” When Elijah looks around, he sees that the angel has prepared “a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water,” for him to eat and drink. Elijah, still sleepy and despondent, nibbles and sips. But not to the angel’s satisfaction. She rouses him again, this time with these words: “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”
At her second invitation, Elijah obeys in earnest, and his strength is renewed. The lection goes on to note that the prophet perseveres in his journey after he eats the angel’s cake. In fact, he’s able to endure for forty days and forty nights on the nourishment of that one meal.
Journeying bread. The angel feeds Elijah journeying bread. Bread for the road. Bread for hope. Bread for the long haul. Or as writer Lauren Winner describes it, “the bread that sustains oppressed people on their journey through dangerous terrain.”
I won’t hold back; I love this story. I love that the angel prepares Elijah’s meal right in front of him as Elijah snores away, only rousing the prophet when breakfast is ready. I love that the cake is warm and fragrant from the hot stones. I love that it’s cake. More importantly, I love that the angel is persistent in her efforts to pull Elijah out of his depression — she wakes him up twice, and prods him until he eats the whole meal. I love that she touches him, communicating gentleness and empathy with her hands.
And I absolutely love that the angel never minimizes or dismisses the difficulties of Elijah’s journey. She never says, “Get over yourself, Elijah; your situation isn’t so bad.” Or, “You’ve survived the worst of it, I promise; it’ll all be downhill from now on.” Or, “Once you eat what I’ve prepared for you, things will be smooth and easy. You’ll be blessed and prosperous — thin and rich and famous and happy. You’ll never experience fear or sadness again.”
No. She says, “The journey is hard. It’s hard. You won’t ever make it on your own. But listen, you don’t have to. Here’s cake. Here’s sustenance. Here’s journeying bread. Get up and eat it. Eat it because life is hard. Eat it because there will be dangers along the way and you’ll need to stay alert. Eat it so you’ll be strong enough to face the perils that lie ahead. You can’t sidestep the journey; it belongs to you. But you can choose how you make it. Famished or fed. Strengthened or weak. Accompanied or alone. Which will you choose?”
In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus compares himself to manna, another ancient and powerful journeying bread. Manna sustains the Israelites in their long wilderness, just as the angel’s cake sustains Elijah in his. And so Jesus desires to sustain us in ours, to be our journeying bread for every road trip, every perilous ride, every long haul, every rocky path. He desires to be our comfort, our joy, our nourishment, our delight, our substance and our strength — not in some magical, cure-all way, but in ways that meet us in our real lives, our real challenges, our real fears and griefs and hopes. Because Jesus knows better than anyone that the journey is hard. He knows it’s too much for us to handle on our own. He knows we need bread that sustains. His bread. His flesh. “Given for the life of the world.”
Get up and eat.
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