“We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” (Matthew 14.17)
“We have nothing…”
And so, we read in today’s gospel the minutes of the very first Church finance committee. You may think I’m kidding, but in Mark’s version of the story, one of the disciples actually does the math, obviously the treasurer, and tells Jesus it’s going to cost 200 denarii to buy enough bread for everyone; and they don’t have the cash.
“We have nothing…”
That doesn’t change. Two thousand years on and we still, really have nothing. That is, whatever we have materially is nothing if we forget what it is that we truly have, what we possess, and what possesses us eternally: Christ.
The disciples forget to whom they are speaking. By this point in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ ministry he has already healed a huge number of people, restored sight, cast out demons, he’s cured Peter’s mother-in-law, brought a little girl back from the dead, a Roman centurion has come to ask that a servant be healed and Jesus does it long distance; they’ve all seen him calm the storm on the Sea of Galilee.
“We have nothing…”
Wait! We may have nothing, but we’ve got him! And so, whatever we’ve got, it will be enough.
Now, to clarify, and also to keep our own parish finance committee from having a conniption, that doesn’t mean we can run our parish on a few loaves of bread and some fish. What we take from this miraculous multiplying of the loaves and fishes is the reality of the spiritual process that takes of whatever we give of our time, talent, and yes, treasure, and makes so much more of it. There’s a multiplier effect that comes of the Holy Spirit, and while we don’t have the budget of similar secular organizations, while we can’t command the resources of major corporations, or wield the worldly powers of governments, we have Christ, and so exceed them all.
I was touched by a comment that then Father now Bishop Robert Barron made in his celebrated television series on Catholicism. Barron recalled a comment made by the late Cardinal Francis George, who had been asked what he was thinking as he stood on the balcony of St. Peter’s after the election of Benedict XVI. George said, “I was gazing over toward the Circus Maximus, toward the Palatine Hill where the Roman Emperors once resided and reigned and looked down upon the persecution of Christians, and I thought, ‘Where are their successors? . . But if you want to see the successor of Peter, he is right next to me, smiling and waving at the crowds.’
Indeed, think on all the empires and kingdoms that have come and gone, how fleeting were the utopian states of just the last century, the Soviet Union brought down and in no small way because of the Church and the gospel she proclaims in the face of tyrannies political and cultural.
In today’s context the Church is facing off against tremendous powers both private and public; powers that have corrupted some of our leadership, duped other parts of it.
I have mentioned the Communist Party of China before, and not more than a year ago they were an unstoppable force for evil. Consider where they are today. The COVID-19 crisis continues and deepens on the Chinese mainland despite their attempts to cover it up. Their grand Three Gorges Dam project, heralded as the solution to the problem of flooding of the Yangtze River is in real danger of failing and bringing on a catastrophe that would dwarf the worst of the floods of the past. There is strong evidence that the food supply is strained. And for all the Communist sabre-rattling around the besieged island of Taiwan, despite their cruel suppression of Hong Kong’s rights, their power and influence is waning as more and more nations are at last finding their backbone and resisting the bribes and bullying of Xi Jinping’s regime. We can only hope that in mainland China something similar is happening as the security and prosperity promised is diminishing for many, and never arriving for the majority.
When we consider why it was that Communist China was so foolishly accommodated, we need only to look at the western-based multinational corporations who were eager to get access to mainland China’s one billion consumers. They used their influence, and not a little money to push our political leaders into accepting the egregious acts of religious persecution of Chinese Christians, Uighar Muslims and others; to look the other way at the atrocious violations of fundamental human rights so that organizations like the National Basketball Association could get access, so that Disney could show its animated films and sell Mickey Mouse merchandise.
Professional basketball players this season will have political slogans on their jerseys. I doubt any will say “Free Hong Kong.”
Disney, which owns the American Broadcasting Company, and so it’s news division, is known to be reluctant to report critically on China—Disney operates several theme parks there.
These same corporations have also been hellbent on supporting the radical social agenda that is opposed to the teaching of the Church right across the board. While many paint themselves as “family friendly” they’ve pushed for the redefinition of marriage, the loosening of sexual morality, promoted a consumer mentality that creates a population of selfish, self-centred and soft individuals cut off from the ties of tradition and family, and so ripe picking for whatever is the latest cultural and political fashion; a people who define themselves by the gadgets they own, the brand names on their clothes and accessories, and the memes they endorse on social media. As Isaiah puts it, they get you to “spend your money for that which is not bread and your labour for that which does not satisfy.”
And now, these mighty corporate powers are shaken; some worse than others by the engineered economic recession we’re living through. Not only can people no longer go to the movies, the sports arenas for their subtle and increasingly not so subtle indoctrination; since being forced to stay home so much, they’re coming to see the media conglomerates and other big corporations for what they are, and wake up to the messages they are pushing on us, on our children.
These are just two forces the Church has contended with for the past several generations, and by them, and others we’ve been badly battered… but not beaten. We’ve been compromised, but haven’t collapsed.
Our own Church was compromised by China’s communist government. The infamous, disgraced former Cardinal McCarrick was the lead on the disastrous agreement the Vatican reached with the Chinese communists, regarded by many as a betrayal of Chinese Catholics specifically, and all Chinese Christians generally. The communists have never honoured their few commitments, and they continue to hammer our brothers and sisters in faith to this day.
And yet, I am confident that the Church will emerge, for all the missteps and outright incompetence in our leadership, alive and continuing in its mission long after the memory of the odious Mao Zedung has faded to nothing.
When Jesus fed the five thousand, it was an anxious time. Again, we need to remember the events leading up to this miracle. I said earlier that this has come after completing a full itinerary of preaching, miraculous healing and the calming of the storm on the Lake of Galilee; but what comes right before today’s story was the execution of John the Baptist.
It would be hard for us to imagine the impact that had on the disciples. Remember, they haven’t yet grasped what is going on in the ministry of Jesus; that while they are slowly coming to affirm him as the Messiah, his divinity, his being the Son of God still escapes most of them. To have John die at the hands of the government would have been chilling; he was one of the leaders of a broader movement of spiritual renewal of which Jesus and his ministry were just a part. What has happened in their estimation is something akin to an amputation; the movement has been maimed, injured perhaps beyond repair. And now this… Jesus is overwhelmed by hungry crowds; another disaster is looming.
“We have nothing…”
My priest toolkit, if I may be allowed to describe it that way, is a little bread, a little wine, some oil, a little water. I need at least a table to serve as an altar, a basin if there’s not font; I need a Bible so as to share our Saviour’s words. If I brought those things out and piled them on a table here, they wouldn’t look like much.
I have nothing.
Yet I have Christ. I stand before His body, you, and I acknowledge Him as the Head of this body of believers. And so, I have more than enough. And it is for me to do as Christ comes commands, to bring you to him; to feed you the blessed bread that by consecration becomes his very body; the body than in your consuming makes you his body, makes him bodily present, here with us.
In the coming months we are facing big challenges to our ability to conduct ministry, and to hold together as a community. Don’t worry. We have enough, and even more than enough.