'They all ate as much as they wanted.' Sunday Reflections, 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A, 31 July 2011
The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, Tintoretto, 1579-81
Readings (NAB: Philippines, USA)
Gospel, Matthew14:13-21 (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England and Wales, Ireland, Scotland)
When Jesus received this news he withdrew by boat to a lonely place where they could be by themselves. But the people heard of this and, leaving the towns, went after him on foot. So as he stepped ashore he saw a large crowd; and he took pity on them and healed their sick.
When evening came, the disciples went to him and said, 'This is a lonely place, and the time has slipped by; so send the people away, and they can go to the villages to buy themselves some food'. Jesus replied, 'There is no need for them to go: give them something to eat yourselves'. But they answered 'All we have with us is five loaves and two fish'. 'Bring them here to me' he said. He gave orders that the people were to sit down on the grass; then he took the five loaves and the two fish, raised his eyes to heaven and said the blessing. And breaking the loaves handed them to his disciples who gave them to the crowds. They all ate as much as they wanted, and they collected the scraps remaining; twelve baskets full. Those who ate numbered about five thousand men, to say nothing of women and children.
Soiscéal, Matha 14:13-21 (Gaeilge, Irish)
San am sin nuair a chuala Íosa faoi bhás Eoin, , chuaigh sé i leataobh as sin i mbád go dtí áit uaigneach ar leithligh. Ach fuair na sluaite scéala air, agus tháinig siad amach as na cathracha á leanúint dá gcois. Ar theacht i dtír dó, chonaic sé slua mór agus ghlac sé trua dóibh agus leigheas na hothair a bhí leo.
Nuair a bhí an tráthnóna ann, áfach, tháinig na deisceabail chuige agus dúirt siad: “Áit uaigneach é seo agus tá sé deireanach feasta. Mar sin, scaoil uait na sluaite go dtéidís isteach sna bailte agus bia a cheannach dóibh féin.” Ach dúirt Íosa leo: “Ní gá dóibh imeacht; tugaigí sibhse rud le hithe dóibh.” “Ach,” ar siadsan leis, “níl anseo againne ach cúig builíní agus dhá iasc.” “Tugaigí chugam anseo iad,” ar seisean. D’ordaigh sé do na sluaite luí fúthu ar an bhféar; thóg sé na cúig builíní agus an dá iasc, agus, ar dhearcadh suas chun na bhflaitheas dó, bheannaigh, bhris, agus thug na builíní do na deisceabail, agus thug na deisceabail do na sluaite iad. D’ith siad uile agus bhí siad sách, agus thóg siad suas an bruscar fuílligh, lán dhá chiseán déag. Timpeall cúig mhíle fear a fuair an béile, gan mná ná páistí a áireamh.
During my seminary years in the 1960s I sometimes came across this statement - though never from any of my teachers: 'You can't preach the Gospel to an empty stomach'. Today's gospel tells us clearly that Jesus took pity on those who had followed him that day, even though he needed time to be alone to come to terms with the news he had just received of the murder of his cousin John the Baptist. He then fed five thousand men, 'to say nothing of women and children' with the help of the apostles. In the very act of feeding all these people and healing the sick among them Jesus was bringing the Good News to them.
The Gospel isn't something separated from our lives. It is God's love experienced and shared. In my most recent post, 'Feed my sheep' fine - but 'feed my cat'?, I shared the charming story of Bishop-elect Thomas Dowd of Montreal who was once asked as a matter of urgency by a patient in the hospital where he was working to feed his cat. Father Dowd doesn't tell us anything about the man's faith but he saw the priest as a person who would do this act of kindness for him. That was his pressing need at that moment.
The pressing need of the vast throng that had followed him was for something to eat. There is a lovely detail in St Mark's version of the raising of the daughter of Jairus. While everyone is rejoicing at her having come to life Jesus, surely with a smile on his face, is aware of the pressing need of the 12-year-old who had just come through a deadly illness. He says, 'Give her something to eat' Mk 5:43).
St John, in his version of this event, one of very few to appear in the four gospels, has Jesus speaking about the Eucharist. As this gospel is read to us in this in the liturgy of the Word we are drawn to to thank God for the gift of himself that he offers us in every celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. do we really believe that it is Jesus the Risen Lord whom we receive in Holy Communion? Do we really believe that we are receving the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, as so many of us learned in the catechism when we were children? Do we really believe that the same Jesus who fed the thousands, with only five loaves and two fish, and the help of the apostles, is now giving himself to us as the Bread of Life?
In 1993 when I was parish priest in the relatively remote province of Surigao del Sur on the east coast of Mindanao a six-year-old boy was brought to the local government hospital on the verge of death from starvation. He was being taken care of by his 11-year-old sister, not by an adult. I discovered that their mother was dead and the siblings had been divided up among relatives. Fortunately, the boy slowly recovered and I was able to get the children into an SOS Children's Village where they grew up and were well taken care of. But I'll never forget one day when the boy's sister, who had missed some years in school, came to visit me and, pointing at Somalia on a world map on the wall said, 'There are many children like my brother there'. Very few in the parish even knew where Somalia was but this girl from an utterly deprived background made the connection between here brother and children suffering from the famine in that country at that time.
Sadly, famine once again has hit that troubled land. The gospel today and our receiving the Bread of Life in Holy Communion calls us to make a similar connection between Jesus the Bread of Life whom we receive, Jesus who fed the thousands, and the needs of those who are hungry anywhere, whether it is for food so that can they simply live or for some other expression of God's love for them.
May I ask you to continue to pray for all the members of the Church in Ireland, which is going through a grave crisis. The next International Eucharistic Congress is scheduled to be held in Dublin next year. Irish missionaries have brought the faith to every continent, have brought the Bread of Life, Who prepares us for the Eternal Banquet to which He invites each one. The people of Ireland now need the prayers of those who have received the gift of the Faith and the gift of the Bread of Life through Irish missionaries. May the Eucharistic Congress be a true moment of grace for the Irish Church.