On that day it will be said: / “Behold our God, to whom we looked to save us! / This is the Lord for whom we looked, / let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us!” / For the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain.
Isaiah 25: 9-10
The disciples said to him, “Where could we ever get enough bread in this deserted place to satisfy such a crowd?” Jesus said to them, “How many loaves do you have?” “Seven,” they replied, “and a few fish.”
Matthew 15: 33-4
The question the disciples ask of Jesus is one that expresses the continuing concern of most of us much of the time, “Given the needs of the world and of those around me, what can I do with the little I have?” Today’s gospel shows us, however, that to give away even the little we have has the capacity to “satisfy” the needs of the world.
We live in a culture that greatly values expertise. We look for specialists to respond to every particular need or concern around us. Oftentimes when we are suffering from some hard to identify physical problem, we find ourselves sent from specialist to specialist, each only daring to respond to the very specific bodily part or organ that is his or her area of competence. When someone is suffering emotionally or mentally, we rely on psychological professionals to help them. We have even become somewhat timid about offering our presence or help because we fear that our lack of knowledge and expertise could make the other worse. Time after time our response to a lack or problem that we have is to commission a study by experts so that they can tell us what we should do. Of course, as we see with climate change, all the knowledge in the world cannot create the will to actually act.
The gospel today has Jesus showing the disciples that when they give the little they have that will be enough. Are our feelings of lack and incompetency sourced by humility or by the evasion of choosing and acting? Is our tendency to make referrals rather than to be ourselves with and for others not, in fact, a way of disengagement and refusal to care enough? Recently, as we spoke about a particular difficulty and need in the congregation at large, a friend put the real question quite starkly. “Do we care enough to do something or not?” The disciples fear that they do not have enough for the crowd, which means, if they give their bread and fish away, there will not be enough to satisfy themselves. Isn’t this always the question? Are we willing and do we dare to go out of ourselves, trusting that there is plenty there for ourselves and for the others.
But is there plenty there? From our earliest religious education, we have learned that Jesus saved us. As we read the passage from Isaiah today, we hear Isaiah’s beautiful vision of the what it means to live on the Lord’s mountain after the Messiah’s coming. It is a time of abundance, “of rich food and pure, choice wines.” It is time when the veil between peoples, their inability to recognize their common humanity, will be destroyed. Finally it is a time without death and without tears. A time when the Lord will have removed “the reproach of his people.” Isaiah says that at that time God’s people will know the Lord and live in gratitude for being saved.
But we know that we have now been saved. As I re-read this familiar and personally favorite passage from Isaiah today, I wondered about why I didn’t live more continually in the rejoicing and gratitude for salvation of which it speaks. The truth is, I live much of my life as if I haven’t been saved, as if I do not live in a world of abundance, overflowing with so much more than all of us even need, but rather in a self-perpetuating struggle as if it were scarcity and not abundance that was the rule.
Wouldn’t this account for my hesitancy to give all away, to stop worrying about holding on to what is mine, both in body and mind. If Isaiah is right, and if Jesus truly has saved us, then we live now on the Lord’s mountain. Yet, the truth is that we are also, at the same time, also climbing that mountain — as St. John of the Cross describes in the Ascent of Mount Carmel. John reminds us that to know the fullness we must give up clinging to the scarcity. To enter the light we must risk passing through the darkness. To rejoice in gratitude we must abandon our own willfulness.
Jan van Ruusbroec says that the “essential being” of our soul is “a spiritual kingdom of God, filled with divine radiance and transcending all our powers.” We usually think of the vision of Isaiah as a dream we might wish to have. But what if, on the other hand, we are already living on the mountain and are asleep, dreaming as if we we lived in scarcity and fear. What if all that is asked of us is “only” to open our hearts, our minds, our eyes to the truth of the “spiritual kingdom of God” that is the “essential being” of our soul.
Advent is a reminder that it is a reality and not merely a doctrine that Christ has come and saved us. We don’t live in rejoicing and gratitude for our salvation because we haven’t yet awakened to it and realized it. We are still living in a dream, a compelling dream whose force keeps us dissociated from the ongoing and eternal birth of the Word in our own soul. As the pregnant mother-to-be must care for the one who is coming to life in her, so must we all care for the One who is coming to birth in us. We must nourish and nurture this life, for, as Ruusbroec says, “it is the first and principal cause of all virtue.” It is the place of abundance, grace, and gratitude. From this place we do not withhold in fear that there is not enough. Rather, we allow the eternal and unendingly abundant life of God to flow into the world from us.
In today’s gospel story we see Jesus teaching the disciples that when you give away all you have without reserve, then it is Jesus himself who feeds the crowd. So too at every moment with us. To know who we really are and who it is that lives in us, allows us to be in the world with gratitude, which leads to generosity. Often when I work really hard, when I try to give everything I have to the task at hand, I experience how much my capacities are lacking, how poorly I seem to be doing. When I really try to give without holding back to a work I really see as important, I usually sense my limits and what feels like my inadequacy. But that’s the illusion of the dream that believes that all I am and have is my own “competence.” On God’s holy mountain, it is the Lord who saves. When my abilities and competencies are exhausted, then the Lord multiplies them beyond counting. Despite my own limits and poverty, the Lord saves, and the only appropriate response to that is rejoicing and gladness.
You should understand that in the same way the essential being of the soul is a spiritual kingdom of God, filled with divine radiance and transcending all our powers (unless one considers these powers as unified and undifferentiated in their ground, which is something about which I do not yet wish to speak). Now beneath this essential being of the soul, in which God reigns, there is found the unity of our spirit; this can be likened to the primum mobile, for in this unity the spirit is moved from above by the power of God, both naturally and supernaturally—it must be by his power, since of ourselves we possess nothing, neither in nature nor above nature. When this divine motion is supernatural it is the first and principal cause of all virtue In this divine motion some enlightened persons receive the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, which are like seven planets enlightening a person’s entire life and making it fruitful.
This is the way in which God possesses the essential unity of our spirit as his kingdom and in which he works and flows forth with gifts into that unity which is the source of all our powers and into all these powers themselves.
Jan van Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals, II, ii, C