Hunger, Elijah & the Taste for God
July 20, Memory of the Ascension into Heaven of Elijah the Tishbite.
Last month at a deck party, my 4-month granddaughter Catherine was seen grasping her protruding tongue with her hands and playing with it. I remarked, "Ah, she has discovered her tongue!" but then I corrected myself: "No, I think it's the other way around: her tongue has discovered her fingers!"
After all, she came out of the womb first experiencing the world of others through her tongue. "Like newborn babes, long for the milk of the word!" (1 Pet. 2:2) Peter does not simply say to long for milk like infants, but adds artigennata—"newly-born"infants. Peter pictures the newborn child searching with his mouth, his tongue, for that which will nourish and satisfy him.
Sure enough, earlier this week, I saw that Catherine's tongue had also discovered her toes. When I say her "tongue," I really mean Catherine herself, for from birth on she as a person has experienced the world through taste, adding to that hearing, sight, smell and touch.
There is one thing she still lacks, however, and it comes back to the tongue, but from a different use of it: speech. The organ through which we taste is also primarily the organ through which we speak, the tongue. While vocal chords and other body parts also are needed for speech, our word for language or speaking focuses on the tongue: "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels;" our "mother-tongue;" "O for a thousand tongues to sing. . . . "
The organ through which Catherine encounters the world today will become in time, if all goes according to natural development, the same organ through which the world will encounter her. Through her speech, we will best get to know her, as she is also formed by the words that we speak to her and learns how to think and express herself.
The Word is one way that we know God as well. Christian formation is not just a mental exercise, like going to the gym, but the way a genuine Christian grows through the encounter with God. The formation begins, as Peter urged, by longing for pure spiritual milk (God's Word—"You were born anew through the living and abiding word of God.")
But how are we to long like newborns? They long instinctively, but we do not. This longing must be learned by cultivation in the Word, by "turning" and becoming like children to God. Which means acting like his children: listening to his Word, coming to His Table, asking for bread, for nourishment, confessing our hunger and our lack. But if we are satisfied in life with little snippets of religion, we will not be fed nor grow. He "fills the hungry with good things."
God fed his hungry people in the wilderness, as he fed Elijah during a time of drought. Elijah is known as a prophet, though we have no book of his prophecies. While he roughly spoke to the priests of Baal, Ahab, and others, another use of his tongue is also presented to us: eating. We encounter Elijah often being fed—by ravens at the brook Cherith, by the widow of Zarephath, and with baked cakes by an angel under the broom tree. (The icon of Elijah at the top shows a raven in the upper right corner.)
After that angelic third feeding, while recovering from spiritual depression and exhaustion, Elijah finally encounters the Lord in person at Horeb, in the still small voice, which causes him to cover his face, including his mouth, wrapping it with his mantle. Then, God speaks, and asks Elijah to tell him his troubles. A conversation with God.
Whatever transpired in the heart and soul of Elijah, he had tasted the goodness of the Lord and thereafter his longing led to his being taken up into heaven by the Lord himself, the one who fed him, who spoke to him, just as he does to all his children.
We are to long for the Lord's coming and his presence. This longing can be cultivated through the Word and prayer. Immerse yourself in the Psalms. "Taste and see that the Lord is good." He will fill the hungry with good things.
Yours for Christ, Creed & Culture,
James M. Kushiner
Executive Director, The Fellowship of St. James
James M. Kushiner is Executive Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, and Executive Director of The Fellowship of St. James.