This week’s gospel story is a continuation of last week’s: the pursuit of Jesus; not by his enemies, but rather by the spiritually hungry.
Hearing about him through the stories in circulation of his miracles, his healing, his casting out of demons, but also his teaching with an authority people hadn’t encountered before; knowing even more of him through their encounters with the apostles, those specially designated disciples who themselves demonstrated command over sickness, demons; who spoke with both authority, but with a novel message that for all its newness nonetheless seemed familiar, genuinely from the faith tradition they already knew.
Now, they want to experience the source of all these reports, rumours, and encounters with disciples – they want to see the man himself; they are after Jesus.
What is driving this? They need to know if this is real; this Jesus, his message, his power.
Remember, and you likely have heard this statistic before, that most human beings through most of history, and for a considerable amount of pre-history, were born, lived and died within a day’s walk of their place of birth. Such was agrarian society. The great exception was the religious pilgrimage; in the Galilee, that would be the annual celebration of the Passover in Jerusalem. For the most part people stayed put because it was safe, it was where your food was, your shelter, your family. To travel was a risky proposition. To suddenly up sticks and go running off after a preacher, well that would be exceptional. The only time you’d leave home so suddenly, and with such lack of adequate preparation, was when an enemy army was just down the road.
We know from a number of ancient sources and current scholarship what the motivation was to find Jesus as a potential saviour: the political death of Israel was looming, already fractured into mini-states, a broken body unlikely to mend; and the fear of an equal spiritual death threatening. The preaching of the Pharisees and the Sadducees did not comfort people, affirm them in their relationship with God, but rather chastised them, called them out as unworthy of God, and by their sins, the authors of the misery and anxiety they suffered. So, no hope there.
So, as idyllic as the pastoral life might seem to us; the peaceful agricultural cycle of rising with the sun, working hard but with some satisfaction through the day, did not end with the pleasant contemplation of the sunset by the Galileans, or the Judeans, or for most people in the ancient world. Rather, there was anxiety for most; apart from the wealthy elites who lived comfortably isolated and indifferent to the mass of humanity; who’s only concern was to keep them just content enough through bread and circuses, and afraid enough through public executions, so as to keep things just as they were.
I don’t like reading the news much these days. And that’s not because it is filled with sad and tragic stories—such is the nature of that industry: conflict, rumour, violence and scandal sells. It’s that it is shaped by a narrative that we now find everywhere in the entertainment industry, sports, what have you. Politicians to pop singers, everything is a secular sermon that either implicitly or explicitly calls us out as awful, hateful people, racist, misogynist, intolerant and, even worse, in denial of our guilt. Worse than these accusations though, that the chaos around us in our culture and politics being our fault, is that we cannot be forgiven, that nothing can be redeemed; that we must do a heavy penance for not only our sins, but those of our ancestors. Nothing is worth saving, not even ourselves.
But I have to reflect on my ancestors, who they were, and what their lives were like. My great grandfather, Peter Whitfield, was a farm labourer outside Reading, England. Owning no property, renting a bit of land as a tenant farmer, he did not have the vote. Much the same was his father’s circumstance, and his father’s father. Can we forgive my great-grandfather for his failure to use his influence with the British Imperial government? It wasn’t until he emigrated in 1904 that he got the vote here in Canada. He took a job working at a mill in Norval where he also rented a small farm.
My lineage is pretty common. All of us have a common human heritage that is a mix of sinners and saints, exploiters and those exploited. And for the most part, rarely did these forebears have any degree of control over things beyond the modest scope of their immediate lives. Collective action to overthrow corrupt and evil governance is pretty rare. For those who start something, and we know this, it usually ends with them on a scaffold, head on the chopping block, nailed to a cross.
When we look back the people of the Galilee two thousand years ago, their neighbours in Judea, the Jewish diaspora, all those former Judeans who left and went abroad, we have to acknowledge that most of the evil that befell them came through the corruption of their leaders, who in turn corrupted enough of the people so as to be supported, and silenced the faithful who found themselves looking on as bad kings and princes made bad decisions that finally led to destruction.
Why didn’t the people rise up? The power of the people is very hard to rouse. It happens. Ancient Judea rose up against foreign kings, you can read about that in the Book of Maccabees in your Catholic edition of the Bible. The Galilee also rebelled, but the Romans crushed that uprising.
We look today to the brave people of Cuba, and we see their struggle against a communist authoritarian government. The Galileans failed because there was no one to come from outside to help them; it looks like the Cubans today are also on their own. Too many of our leaders have been admirers of that island’s tyrants; they want us all to think its just about COVID.
Like all human beings, the longing is for freedom: yes, freedom from hunger, disease, all kinds of material want, but also simply freedom. To not be imposed upon, forced to kowtow out of fear to authorities no matter how corrupt or feckless, to be free to think one’s thoughts, speak from the heart, enter into true conversation, and so sincere relationship with others, and so form genuine community.
Jesus through his twelve apostles was offering just that: the twelve being surrogate leaders for the lost tribes of Israel; the Church, what we call in Greek the Ekklesia is literally to be a gathering of people—that’s what Ekklesia means, “the gathering”; the church is not just a building of brick and stone, a sacred sanctuary such as pagan temples were—those are ultimately useless.
That gathering is then to be a people in pursuit of their God, in search of Christ who is truth and love personified.
When at last the Galileans, by their thousands, catch up with Jesus, they are pretty much at the end of their resources. They’ve not brought enough food, they didn’t know what it was going to take, how far they were going to get from the comforts of home. And so now we find them in a wilderness by the shores of the Lake of Galilee.
Yet, as hungry as they are, the first thing on their minds isn’t really, “is there anything to eat?” Rather, they need an answer to the question: is Jesus the real deal? Is what he says true? And that is when Our Lord furnishes the proof, in a sign, in a miracle.
You see, all those people would have known stories about the Old Testament prophet Elisha. They’d have told them and retold them. They knew the story we heard today: how Elisha fed a hundred people with just a few loaves of bread. How that miracle proved he was a prophet of God. But now Jesus is facing, not a hundred, but more than fifty times that number. Remember, we only have a count of 5000 men; we don’t know how many women and children are there. It’s safe to say that what we’re really looking at is 5000 households. So, this sign, this feeding miracle is of an order of magnitude that tells everyone who witnessed it that Jesus is certainly a prophet, but then, he must be a great prophet, or perhaps, something much more. But what? Who is he? Well, by this sign, we can say that his words are true.
As I said last week, it is by your ministry and mine that people come to know a little of Jesus, we by our witness, by our corporal and spiritual works we make folks familiar with Our Lord, but the whole purpose there is for them to in turn come in search of Him; to bring them here, to this place of encounter.
As Catholics the great feeding miracles like the one we hear about today are often taken as foreshadowing the eucharist; and so, indeed they do. However, we should not take them to be in any sense some kind of mass or sacramental celebration as we understand it—these all take place before that first Easter of the Resurrection; what was being eaten was just bread, as miraculous as its production was, still just bread. The point of the story is what it proves; how Jesus is revealed in it.
I know that at Mass, in the Eucharist, what is received looks pretty paltry: a small host, what looks like and tastes like little more than a small piece of unleavened, unsalted bread – the catholic cracker. It can then be of no more significance than any of the thousands of meals and snacks a person has in a lifetime.
But of course, if you ate anything in the company of Jesus, by the seaside, after hearing him, after that long chase around the shoreline, tired and hungry; that meal would be unforgettable, and its effect remarkable. Here in the host we have it all condensed, the entirely of that lakeside experience of long ago, of every encounter with Our Lord and Saviour; but always with a capacity to incorporate more: your life, your pains, your joys and now your encounter with Jesus that only comes from pursuing him, only happens when you’ve run out of the food you’ve brought, the empty nourishment of the world, and are at last truly hungry for what is essential to life: the Word of God, truth and love, incarnate in Jesus Christ and offered in abundance to us all now.
The miracle isn’t the host, it is in the sincere encounter, the receiving in the spirit in which it is given, the communion that takes the very substance of God and earnestly desires that this be made a part of oneself, that Christ become one with you, with me. That in that act there is forgiveness and redemption, renewal and restoration, the strength to carry on, a hope for tomorrow and a faith that by love we can make this world a better place and better ourselves for the next in eternal communion of Christ.