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Evensong Sermon for Queens' College Cambridge by Sr Ann Catherine Swailes

basis of contested medical evidence, and speculation as to the wisdom of prime ministerial decision-making on an empty stomach. But they have also provoked other, rather different questions, of which the most basic concerns the relationship between human being and human eating.Intermittent fasting like the Prime Minister’s is said – by some - to maximise the energy with which our food provides us, but if food is simply fuel, then decisions about what we eat are little more than questions of calibration: matching volume to the capacity of the machine consuming it, and surely human beings are more than machines? Surely, too, food is an important part of what makes us more than machines; for all its ambiguity, both the source and the symbol of festivity, companionship, communion? 

And this raises a parallel question that might profitably be put to those of us who are currently wondering what if anything we will give up for Lent this year: can our fasting enable us to become a little more human, a little more who we are meant to be?

How might what we have just heard read, especially in that mysterious first reading, where both the location and the duration of Elijah’s fasting reminds us insistently of Lenten themes, shed light on all this? How might it help us understand just what it is we seek to do – and what we should not seek to do – when we fast?

One common understanding of the value of fasting is as a weapon against idolatry, against the false gods of consumerism and materialism, and against all the various cults of self-indulgence that serve to propitiate these seductively demanding deities. My commitment to going without some of what I normally enjoy will, on this account, empty me out: my emptiness will enable me to travel light, as I run from idol worship towards the true God who alone can satisfy my hunger. And this is important, because, at any rate in the tradition of Elijah and of Jesus, to know and love the true God is to be truly human, to be truly who we are meant to be.

Our first reading tonight is set in the context of a flight from idolatry. The prophet Elijah is in the wilderness on the run from Queen Jezebel, seeking to kill him after a dramatic showdown with the devotees of the god Baal, among whom the Queen is numbered. Baal, by all accounts a fearful divinity who demands to be fed with the blood of children, has come off the worst in a contest with Elijah’s God: when both deities are petitioned to send supernatural fire from heaven to consume the carcass of a bull, only the God of Israel shows up and does the deed. Despite the increasingly frenetic and self-destructive pleading of his followers, Baal by contrast remains mute and impotent. And, towards the end of our reading, Elijah will make a wilderness journey to Mount Horeb, where, centuries before, God tells Moses he shall have no other God than God. When Elijah arrives there, it will be to have his own vision of God purified, gradually freed from idolatrous imagery that suggests the inevitable rightness of might: God, we are told, is not manifest in the gale or the thunder or earthquake or fire raging around the summit, but shows himself to Elijah in the still small voice of calm that succeeds them. So perhaps Elijah could be an inspiration and patron for us during Lent as we fast in order to subdue and escape the false gods – and false images of God - who beckon, sometimes alluringly, sometimes terrifyingly, in all our lives. Perhaps he could –but how?

There is such a great paradox in our attempts to flee idolatry. We do long to break the hold over us of things less than God. But, so often, we dislodge them only to put another, and more potently seductive, idol in their place. I may – through sheer gritted teeth determination – succeed in abstaining from booze or chocolate or whatever for the entirety of Lent. And I may, in consequence, arrive at Easter in thrall, not to my appetite for booze or chocolate - but to my own sense of achievement in vanquishing my longing for these things. In some ways, a Lent that looks like a miserable failure, with all of our fervent Ash Wednesday promises in ruins, is a more hopeful place to be, because it reminds us inescapably of the weakness of our own strength, of our need for God in whose strength alone we can journey to God, as Elijah journeys to Horeb. And this is where Elijah can help us, precisely because tonight’s first reading is not, in fact, simply about fasting. It is first and foremost, about feeding, and about being fed.

Our story show us an exhausted and traumatised Elijah dejectedly praying for death under a broom tree, where he falls asleep, and encounters an angel, who gestures to what is charmingly translated in our bibles as cake – probably something a good deal more like pita bread - and bids him eat. At first sight that seems somewhat underwhelming. As a friend of mine recently put it to me, it’s as though, faced with Elijah’s existential anguish, the Almighty offers him something almost laughably banal – a nap, and a snack. But both nap and snack are important. The nap because it locates us in the territory of dreams, where past, present and future coalesce, where anything can happen and the familiar can take on strange and shifting meaning, so that wide vistas of significance spread out before us in the most mundane and every-day of things.  And the snack precisely because of just what it is that the cake, and the angel feeding it to Elijah might signify.

This is not, after all, the first time in the Hebrew Bible where food has miraculously appeared in the desert: as we dream with Elijah of the cake of bread in whose strength he is to travel to Horeb, we are surely meant to see backwards through it to the manna, the incomprehensible bread from heaven given to sustain the people of God under Moses in their journey to the holy mountain. If our journey to encounter God during Lent is to reach its destination, we too must allow God to feed us, as he fed Elijah, however he wills, and whenever he wills, at whatever cost to the images we have created of the perfect Lent, the perfect fast. And notice, too that the angel has to urge Elijah to eat not once, but twice, as though the prophet needs to be reminded repeatedly of his fleshly limitations: eat, he is told, or the journey will be too much for you.  We could read this, quite simply, as an admonition against being too ambitious in our fasting – and some of us should. There is nothing holy in undermining our health, and we do not all have equal capacity to go without food. But for all of us it is also a reminder that however much or little we find ourselves able to do for Lent this year, this is not our achievement but God’s gift. And, if we fail in our resolve, that, too is his gift, his invitation to turn to him and be fed.

But maybe as we dream with Elijah we are meant to see not only backwards, but forwards too, forwards to the end of our Lenten journey. Conventionally, we talk of giving things up for Lent, but perhaps the ambiguity of the English language is misleading here. It would be far more profoundly appropriate, surely, to speak of giving things up for Easter, for the sake of Easter. Our Lenten fasting is not an end in itself; it is meant to sharpen our hunger for Easter feasting. And, when Easter comes, we will hear once again the invitation of the risen Lord, calling us to be fed, not by angels, but by himself, to keep festival with him, and in that feasting to be made most truly who we are meant to be.