Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (Nehemiah 9:9-37) transports me back into Tolkien’s Middle Earth, to the elvish land of Lothlórien to be specific, where Lady Galadriel bestows gifts on the fellowship of the ring. The gifts include a vial of light for Frodo, some elven rope for Sam, the Elfstone for Aragorn, a Galadrim bow and arrows for Legolas, and three strands of her hair for the dwarf Gimli. To the entire fellowship she gives a supply of lembas, also known as elven waybread. Tolkien, in one of his correspondences, said that his inspiration for lembas came in part from the holy Eucharist, which in his time was often referred to as viaticum, denoting that it was food for the way, for the journey. The lembas was definitely food for a journey; Legolas explains to his fellow travelers that one bite of lembas would fill the stomach of a grown man. The lembas turns out to be quite a sustaining gift, as the journey takes various members of the fellowship into wilderness realms without access to food. Toward the end of the trilogy, when Sam and Frodo are on the excruciating last leg of the quest toward Mount Doom, it is lembas that fortifies them. Speaking of the bread’s importance to Sam and Frodo as they trudged on across the bleakest of landscapes, the writer tells us that the lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die. . . This waybread of the Elves fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.
When the fellowship of the Israelite covenant community was on its quest to re-establish their home after returning from exile, they remembered the lembas-like bread that sustained them on their long journey through the bleak wilderness landscape. Even when they grumbled and longed for the life of captivity Egypt afforded them, even when they yielded to temptation and called on the powers of idols, God did not forsake them. Showing great mercy, Nehemiah recalls, the pillar of cloud continued to lead them by day, and the pillar of fire by night. The Spirit continued to instruct them, and did not withhold manna from their mouths. In a nice touch that sounds almost hobbit-like or elven-like in its detail, Nehemiah remembers that in the forty long years their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell.
Whether we call it lembas or manna or viaticum, we all need some waybread for our journey. It is a long trek, sometimes through the bleakest of landscapes, for those who are walking the Way toward a promised land of compassion, economic justice, peace, welcome for the stranger, freedom and equality. Sometimes we give way to the longing for the comforts of culture’s captivity. Sometimes we yield to the temptation to put on the ring, to call on idolatrous powers. But Nehemiah reminds us that even in our weakest moments, even when we stumble and grumble, God does not forsake us. The Spirit continues to feed the will with the Waybread of mercy and grace, giving strength to endure. And so we do not lay down to die; we walk on, from exile toward home.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on FB, Google+, Twitter, etc.