A Sacred Banquet
In this beautiful homily for 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Father Hanly helps us understand the meaning and importance of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes.
First Reading: Isaiah 55:1-3
Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 145:8-9, 15-16, 17-18
Second Reading: Romans 8:35, 37-39
Gospel: Matthew 14:13-21
This is the only reading that is in all four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And that alone tells us how important this reading is. And yet when we (inaudible) upon it, it seems a little bit strange and a little bit hard to comprehend totally and completely. And why should it be so important?
And I think the best way, maybe, to approach this is almost line by line, so that you can see and understand what Matthew, the great teacher, is trying to tell us, not about what happened on that wonderful day when Jesus fed five thousand people but, rather, what does it mean to us here and now in this present place on this very warm and hot day.
Matthew, you have to always read a couple of verses and episodes before the gospel that was chosen for today, so that you know the kind of the context in which it fit and where Matthew wanted it placed.
And so the context of this one, it begins when Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.
The first thing is this opens very sadly. We see a sad and almost frightened Jesus. And why? Because, in the previous part of this reading, there was, in great detail, the death of his cousin John, John the Baptist, who he grew up with. Elizabeth was his mother, and Elizabeth and Mary were very close. And you see some of the famous pictures of the Renaissance show the four of them: Mary and Elizabeth and the two little babies playing at their knees, one John the Baptist and the other is the child, Jesus.
And so the beginning is rooted in sadness, because Jesus finds the death of John is quite frightening. And rightfully so, because John lost his life. He was imprisoned by Herod, because he criticised him for marrying Herodias, his wife who was married to someone else at the same time, and he criticised her publicly.
Herod loved John to a certain degree, but, like all men of great power who misuse their power, he was afraid of what other people would say and think and do. And so John is beheaded because of a drunken birthday party where Herod promises a dancing girl half of his kingdom if she would like it because she has delighted all his friends at this terrible occasion. And John was sitting in a cell deep down in the castle belly and weeping. And, of course, the little girl went to her mother, who hated John, and asked for the one thing that Herod hesitated on. She said, “I want John’s head on a platter. Deliver it to me here and now.”
Well, he was afraid, because he had boasted and he was half drunk and, of course, what he says as king must be kept. And so he had to give in, because he was too much of a coward to do the right thing and cared very much about what everybody else thought.
And so it was they sent soldiers down and they cut John’s head off and brought it up on a plate and presented it to the little girl, Herodias’ daughter, who gave it to her mother.
And this is the beginning of the story that Jesus heard the next morning when it came to him what happened to his little friend, the one who baptised him, the one who cared for him, the one who looked after him, who sent every one of his disciples to him saying, “This, it is not me, but this is the one, this is the Messiah who has come and I only am preparing the way.”
And so Jesus got in a boat, all by himself, and he crossed the sea of Galilee, landing on the other side in a deserted place, because he wanted to be alone. He wanted to think about it. He wanted to think of his lovely cousin who he himself had said, “Of all the men and women, there has never been one like John the Baptist.”
And he must have wondered whether he would be next. And while he was seeking this quiet place, the people who had been following him found out that he had gone across in a boat. And they circled the Sea of Galilee and went around the long way over to the hill country and around to the other side. And by the time they arrived, Jesus was about to put himself in a kind of quietness and hoping that he would not be disturbed. And, all of a sudden, they came from every which way.
They came for what?
They were bringing their sick and they wanted them healed. They wanted to see what Jesus was going to say. They knew that he was under peril just as John was. They wanted so many things and many of them were not very good. They wanted to see the show. They wanted to see how he would react to the words and what happened to his brother.
And all these things poured out from hundreds and thousands of people who, by the time they could count them all, there were five thousand people crowding into that sea shore area.
And what did Jesus do?
The crowd heard that Jesus had gone into a deserted place by himself and they followed him on foot from their towns. And when he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was turned with pity, with compassion, for them and he began to heal and cure the sick.
What you must take away from this is not so much what is being done as the one who is doing it, the Son of God, in the midst of his sorrow, wanting desperately to be alone, is invaded by all these people who, one way or another, couldn’t care too much what happened to him.
And his heart was moved with compassion because he loved them. They didn’t have to perform for him. They didn’t have to pretend that their hearts were turned towards God or forgiveness. It was enough that he saw them and he could see into their hearts. They were lost and alone, frightened, as much as he might have been when he first heard the news.
And what he did was, one by one, he blessed them and he took care of them and he healed them.
Healing, you know, is not a matter of just what doctors do when you get sick. Healing is layer upon layer of being healed, not just of the physical discomfort of being ill, but healed in the head and healed in the heart and healed from anything that would threaten peace and happiness and surcease and joy.
And this is what God, Jesus himself, could give. His love could go deeper than our love. His love would be something that you could count on, something that you could live by, something that you could give yourself for.
And what began now is an altogether different thing than a lot of people visiting a famous healer and doctor. It was the beginning of an understanding that God was in their midst. He was touching them and walking among them and taking care of them, for when we look at Jesus, we look at God Himself, we look at the Father, the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus.
Jesus was the man who out of (inaudible), this fact of becoming one of us, made him so approachable and so much easier for us to understand and to welcome into our own lives and into our hearts.
And then, all day long, he took care of these people. And, when he was finished and evening was coming, he called to the disciples. And the disciples came and said, “You must send the people home. Send them home.”
Why should you send them home? Well, because it’s getting dark and they’re hungry and they should maybe search for places where they can buy food for themselves.
And then Jesus says, with kind of a smile, I suppose, he says, “There’s no need for them to go away. Give them some food yourselves.”
Now, according to John’s version, something very extraordinary happens. One of the disciples says, “There’s a little boy here and he has five loaves and two fishes, and what is this among so many? Send them home.” And Jesus says, “Bring the food to me.” And they bring the food to Jesus. And I’m sure the little boy came, too.
And, of course, the first thing that you’ve all forgotten about, because you’re so anxious to find out what’s going to happen next, is that the little boy was giving his whole lunch away: his five, little, bread-like cakes and his two fish. With great happiness, he gave them to Jesus. And Jesus takes them.
And then we begin, and listen carefully to this part, because what is happening here is why you are sitting in your seats right now, because what happens here is the shadowing of the Last Supper and the shadow of reality of the presence of Christ and God among us that we too share in the miracle of the loaves and the fishes.
Jesus said to them, “Bring them to me.” And he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. It was like all these people, who didn’t even know each other, pushing and shoving and demanding attention, all of a sudden they were sitting on grass in little groups and talking to each other because Jesus had told them.
And then telling them to sit down on the grass, he took the five loaves and the two fishes and, looking up to heaven, looking up to his Father, looking up to God his Father, he said the blessing.
And what blessing? The ancient blessing of the Jews before they eat. Our version, of course, would be, because we have carried this tradition down, when we say before we eat, “Bless us oh Lord and these, thy gifts, which we are about to receive from your goodness.” And then we add, “Through Christ our Lord.”
He said the blessing and then he broke the loaves. This is another indication of something much more than the actual words mean, for it is said of Jesus that he was broken on the cross and when the priest today raises the bread, he breaks it, after consecration, he breaks the bread to remind us that out of the broken body of Christ comes the healing and salvation of all people.
And so he broke the loaves and the two fish and gave them to his disciples. Of course, he gave them to his disciples because, by now, you understand he is talking to you and to me. His disciples are his followers and, yes, he will provide the body and the blood of the Messiah, he will provide the food that we need and hunger for deeper than any physical food.
He will do it, but those who distribute it are you and me, for we are the ones who carry this sacred sacrament with us, and it is we who are to go out into the world and bring everyone in to this banquet. For this is the meaning of the parable. It’s the meaning of why Jesus is where he is, and why he put all his feelings for his cousin aside, and why he was able to take the generosity of the child and turn it into a banquet, the first great banquet of God with His people.
And they all ate and they all were satisfied. And they picked up the fragments left over and, of course, there were twelve wicker baskets full.
Because twelve is the sacred number. It is the twelve tribes of Israel. They are the people who were called by God and they are the ones who Moses brought out of Egypt, out of slavery and into a whole new mission in life, which was to carry the word of God Himself through the desert, where they were fed by heaven, as the old saying went. And when they were in the desert, God fed them with bread, a sacred bread.
And the twelve baskets mean unity, for there were only twelve tribes. And so Christians love this passage because they had a problem sometimes with unity and they kept praying and praying, “We are the children of Israel. We are the future of the whole world. We must be one. We must be together. We must rejoice and sit down and eat the sacred meal that God has prepared for us that we might go out and bring people into a wider community, not twelve tribes but the whole world.”
And so, as you read on in this very short passage, you can see the meaning of what it means to be a Christian. It means to come each Sunday and, as Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. He who eats me will never die.”
And he is the hope of the world, for those who come together, those who put down all their differences, those who are looking for everything except what they must look for, which is the love of Jesus, the life of Jesus and to share this love and this life of Jesus by what we say, what we do and teach our children to begin, as they are very young.
And to know the first hero in the Blessed Sacrament, the first one who offered something that we ourselves may take each Sunday, the Holy Eucharist, was a little child who gave up his five loaves, that we might understand that Jesus is with us, the Father is with us, and that, each Sunday we participate in, and once again bring to mind, that they are with us and we are with them and we will be with them for all eternity.