18th Per Annum, 2nd Aug 2020
I’m not usually a fan of shopping but for a brief period earlier this year, going to the shops was exciting. This was exclusively for the reason, of course, that you couldn’t go anywhere else and I certainly found that it was just nice to have a little stroll and engage vaguely with the rest of the human race. The novelty quickly wore off and I find it a chore once again. I’ve said before how it revealed the warped priorities of our nation when we could go to buy perishable food but not to go to Mass to receive the Bread of Angels. I would encourage those of our brethren who are going to shops but haven’t returned to Mass yet that we mustn’t prioritise our longing for the things of this world over the food come down from Heaven.
In our Gospel today, the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the displaces make the suggestion of sending the crowds to the shops but Jesus says there is no need. I want us to spend some time today just picking over some of the details of this wonderful narrative in the Gospels. If towns and villages are nearby, this lonely place is not in the desert plains, but it is a wilderness. Instantly we should think then of the people of God wondering through the wilderness when they grumbled that they would have been better off back in Egypt, yet God sent them quails, the manna from Heaven, just enough for each day (Exodus 16). Thus was the greed of hoarding not to be part of their response to the generosity of God.
Jesus goes off to the wilderness on a boat and whenever we read about boats in the Bible we know this is telling us something about the life of the Church. Noah’s Ark is the means by which God’s chosen can ride the rough storm of the flood and be led to safety. Jesus is so often in the boat with the disciples, catching vast swathes of fish (as in last Sunday’s Gospel), our Lord calms the storm and calls Peter to do great things - all in a boat. This Feeding of the Five Thousand is not then just a miracle enabling lots of people to eat lots. There’s something more at work: it’s pointing us to the significance of a meal in the life of the Church.
St Jerome when commenting on this passage is worried that folk will think Jesus has gone out to the desert after the death of John the Baptist because He was afraid. Jerome, whose feast we celebrate on 30th September, says rather it shows the Lord’s mercy because otherwise the enemies of the Lord might have been inspired by the death of John the Baptist and so put Jesus to death too. But it was not His time, so the Lord withdraws that murder might not be added to murder. In the context of murder, Jesus brings life eternal, just as at the Last Supper in the context of betrayal, Jesus promises to be with His Church until the end of the age through the Sacrament of His Body and Blood.
This was no take-away, no uber eats delivery service. The crowds followed Jesus “on foot,” no luxurious travel, no 318 to bring them to Mass. And they stayed with Him until “evening came.” It is the end of the day, and having been exposed to the heat of the day all day, the people would have been exhausted. They’re clearly milling around edging towards making a getaway as Jesus needs to tell them to sit down. They have waited patiently for the Lord and find their reward. This is the great gift of perseverance which we might pray for ourselves, my friends, we who so often want great spiritual benefits after putting very little in to our relationship with God.
While not a take-away, this is also no buffet. The Apostles have quite a clear role to perform in this miracle, again a sign that this is instructive about the life of the Church. The Apostles first of all draw the Lord’s attention to the plight of the people, reminding us of the intercessory role of the parish priest, to pray for his people and to bring their needs to the Lord. The Twelve then offer the small amount of food they have - just five loaves and two fishes, a sign that they have taken to heart the Lord’s advice to travel lightly, without an attachment to material possessions. The Twelve not only provide the food but they also distribute it to the crowds, which would have taken some time. The first Christian communities as they heard this miracle must have been struck that in some instances it was the same Apostles who gave them the Bread and Wine at Mass.
The Apostles are also involved in the collection of what was left over of the bread and fish, hence there was twelve basketfuls, one for each disciple. It’s not to be wasted, and so it is with the hosts of the Lord’s Body at the end of Mass, that they are kept in the Tabernacle so that in ordinary circumstances Holy Communion might be taken to the housebound. The Lord’s Body is also kept in churches as a focus for adoration as this is the means of Christ’s presence in the Church, His dwelling among us, even now He has ascended to the Father. And, just so you know, one of the steps taken during the pandemic is that Hosts placed in the Tabernacle are kept there for 72 hours before they’re brought out again to prevent the any possible spread of infection.
The offering of the Bread and the Fish is significant in that the Lord uses what is offered. He could have just created food out of nothing, after all He is the Lord of the Heavens and the earth. On other occasions He plucks coins out of nowhere in the mouths of fish (Matthew 17:27). We believe the world is created very good and that there is enough in the world to go round. The current concern about recycling and carbon emission and climate change is very welcome as we seek to be good stewards of the world God has made; but it mustn’t lead us to being stingy or thinking God has created a flawed world. In exercising our dominion of the earth we are to marvel at God’s lavish abundance in what He has created. When fish were created, when wheat was considered by the Lord our God He knew that years and years later He Himself would take our flesh and invite vast crowds to sit on grass and feed them with just five loaves and two fish. The vast mind of the Creator is amazing!
And finally, let’s consider the timing of this miracle. The evening. That time when our Lord would celebrate the meal with the same Apostles, the Last Supper on the night before He died on the Cross. At that meal He took bread and wine once again, raised His eyes to Heaven and gave thanks, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them saying, “Do this in memory of me.” And, after His death and Resurrection, Jesus would make Himself known to Cleopas and St Luke at the Breaking of the Bread when it was evening time, the day nearly over (Luke 24:29). And not just the time of day is significant, but St John records that this miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand happened at Passover time (John 6:4). The Passover meal was significant for the Jews as it celebrated the gift of freedom to worship that God gives His people. The Passover is significant for what St John is teaching the church because it was as the Passover Lambs were being slaughtered (John 19:14) that Jesus died on the Cross. Christ is our Passover Lamb (I Corinthians 5:7).
So, there’s much to ponder in this wonderful record of the Lord’s feeding the five thousand. But we’re not just recalling an historical event but we’re taking seriously the promise of the Lord to be with us until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20) and when we eat this bread and drink from this cup we proclaim the Lord’s death. One of the congregation has asked me why we can’t use individual communion cups. They’re not allowed in the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church because there is a clear biblical symbolism of drinking from the cup from which another has drunk. We do not do that in these days of pandemic for health reasons. But the image is clearly there when Jesus talks of drinking the cup from which I will drink, when He refers to the suffering He will endure for the life of the world. That life is poured out and broken for us at this Mass that we may feast on the Lord’s Flesh, given for our sake. What love the Lord shows us!