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.” He ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground. Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, gave thanks, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds. They all ate and were satisfied.Matthew 15:33-37
The readings for this day, Wednesday of the First Week of Advent, afford a most penetrating insight into the what St. Bernard calls the three comings of the Lord. The much loved passage from Isaiah speaks of the fulfillment of God’s promise of a life where God will provide for all peoples, where God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and where we shall in communion with all others share a great feast in a life where death has been destroyed forever. This is, perhaps, one of scripture’s most beautiful images of the third and final coming of the Lord.
In the gospel we are brought into the world of the first coming of Jesus. Here he is preaching and teaching with his disciples. We see that even though the Lord is with them, the disciples, as we, live with a sense of scarcity and incompleteness. It is the coming of Jesus into our human condition, where among the crowd are “the lame, the blind, the deformed, the mute, and many others.” Unlike the promised Mount of Isaiah this is the community of those following Jesus, in all of our woundedness and brokenness, in our illness and deformity. Jesus is aware of and concerned about the hunger of the crowd, but the disciples are overwhelmed by their number and their need They are convinced that there can never be enough bread for everyone.
The gospel is passed on for us who live between the first coming of Jesus in the flesh and the third coming in glory. St. Bernard says that while the first and third comings of Jesus are visible, the intermediate coming, which we live in this life, is invisible. The gospels teach us about this invisible coming of Jesus that we live daily. The disciples are stand-ins for us. We are, without knowing it, already participating in the feast that Isaiah describes. Yet, our communion looks more like the gathering on the Mount in Matthew than in Isaiah. We are lame, blind, deformed, mute, broken often in body and spirit. The tears have not at all been wiped away from our eyes. St. Catherine of Siena said that “all the way to heaven is heaven.” In today’s gospel passage, we see that the kingdom of heaven for us means being a community of the wounded, sorrowful, and hungry.
Yesterday I was speaking with a religious sister who has been caring for her mother for at least a couple of years now. It seems as if her mother is now moving into a weaker state, and this brings with it for this sister a deepening and more insistent sense of grieving. It also, of course, brings with it many more pressing demands on her time and presence. Her mother will often ask her to stay with her, and, at times, even to sleep on the recliner in her bedroom. As a result, there is less and less space in the day, and night, for the prayer that she, by Rule, is called to do. So we spoke for a time about how prayer, in these circumstances, may largely be the attentive and mindful going through of her experience. We have our own ideas of what spirit and transcendence look like. Perhaps it is something like the image Isaiah offers, where we have “broken through” to the clear vision of God’s glory and are in a state of unalloyed love, joy, and peace. But all the way to that “place” is also transcendence, is also “heaven.” This is the intermediate coming of the Lord, in everything that is. This is the coming of the Lord in faith, hope, and love.
In the gospel passage today, the disciples, although Jesus is with them in the flesh, cannot recognize that in this very moment, among “the lame, the blind, the deformed, the mute, and many others,” their living out of Isaiah’s promise. It is through the pity of Jesus’ heart for the crowd that the moment of transformation, that the miracle of communion that is present as seed in this broken and hungry gathering, can become realized. The hunger of the crowd frightens the disciples, for they have so little with which to feed them. But Jesus does not see the seven loaves and few fish as insignificant. He takes them, gives thanks for them, and then breaks and shares them, and they are more than enough for everyone.
I have always felt that one of the greatest insights and gifts of the Catholic tradition is the centrality of sacramentality. It is the reminder that all of life is more than we can immediately recognize. It is a way of seeing. The disciples see the seven loaves and few fish in the light of the huge crowd and so focus on its inadequacy, on its scarcity. On the other hand, Jesus sees it, as he takes it and gives thanks, as the bounty God has given. Jesus is certain that if we see what we have as the gift God gives us for our shared journey, it will always be more than enough. There is much conjecture on what really happens here. For example, as Jesus blesses and gives out what the disciples have, perhaps everyone starts sharing the little they have brought. As any of us know who have attended a pot luck supper, when many bring some small amount, there is often much food left over. Whatever, the historical reality, however, the truth, a truth we so need to reappropriate in our time, is that all is given to us by God for all. If we always shared, then we would have no climate crisis, for the wealthy would not have pillaged the resources of the poor countries in order to sustain a dominant way of living.
For the first time today in my reading of this gospel, I focused on the nature of the action of Jesus. He gives thanks in recognition of the loaves and fish as gift. When we do this, we are brought into the realm of transcendence, of sacrament. The bread and fish are a sacrament of God’s love, care, and presence. “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst.” In the gospel story, Jesus is there in the flesh, but the disciples behave as if he is absent. This is us. Jesus is not here in the flesh, but he is present whenever we gather mindful of his name, which, of course, means mindful of God’s presence and God’s dominion. That is, everything including our lives and all created things that sustain us are gifts of God. Jesus never forgets this, so he doesn’t worry about scarcity. We produce scarcity when we plunder and depredate the earth out of greed and selfishness.
In his sermon, St. Bernard says that as we live this intermediate coming of Jesus, we are to keep God’s word in our hearts. It is God’s word that is the bread for our souls. The disciples fail to have the pity for the crowd that Jesus has. This is because they are fearful that there is not enough food for everyone. We, like the disciples, are “worried and anxious about many things” and we call that worry being realistic. The gospel shows that it is Jesus who is realistic, as he allows the hunger of the crowd to form his heart and then takes what there is, trusting, as he gives thanks, that God gives what is needed. Our hearts do take form from many sources. To the degree they take form not out of our fears and anxieties but from the word of God, they will see life and world as sacrament of the Divine presence. We block out the needs and appeals of our brothers and sisters because we are afraid of our own impotence. But even Jesus doesn’t feed the crowd out of the perspective of his own power. Rather he takes what is given and “gives thanks” and then breaks and shares it.
The Rule of my congregation states: “Because his whole vocation involves a sharing with his brothers in the mystery of Christ and a willingness to allow himself to be given away with Christ ‘as bread that is broken,’ the life of the Xaverian Brother is fundamentally eucharistic.” (Statutes, Art. 7) In our church’s tradition, the life of every person on earth is fundamentally eucharistic. We come to recognize and realize this as we “keep God’s word in our hearts.” Most of the time, we don’t see the world, we don’t perceive reality, as God does. In unreflective thought, word, and deed, we act as if the world is ours, as if it is up to us to plunder it for the sake of our own survival. Yet, to the degree our hearts are formed by God’s word, we see that nothing is ours alone but that all is gift for all. We, like the disciples, send others away because we think there is not enough for us and for them. We do this among our very own in my own community. We believe lest we control our assets against the needs of others there will not be enough.
So, to a heart formed by the world, Jesus is naive. If he thinks what they have among them is enough for all of them, he must be deluded. But, in truth, it is enough. The word of God says that if we live in the hospitality of faith and learn to follow our hearts as formed by the word of God, “The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry.” (1 Kings 17:14) The preface to the Eucharistic Prayers often begins: “It is our duty always and everywhere to give you thanks.” This is how Jesus transforms the moment with the crowd from one of fear and a sense of scarcity to one of “eucharist.” The time Isaiah foretells is always coming to us. To recognize it, however, we must not flee the limits, suffering, and pain of our humanity but rather learn how to embrace them with thanks.
Where is God’s word to be kept? Obviously in the heart, as the prophet says: “I have hidden your words in my heart, so that I may not sin against you.”
Keep God’s word in this way. Let it enter into your very being, let it take possession of your desires and your whole way of life. Feed on goodness, and your soul will delight in its richness. Remember to eat your bread, or your heart will wither away. Fill your soul with richness and strength.
If you keep the word of God in this way, it will also keep you. The Son with the Father will come to you. The great Prophet who will build the new Jerusalem will come, the one who makes all things new. This coming will fulfill what is written: “As we have borne the likeness of the earthly human, we shall also bear the likeness of the heavenly human.” Just as Adam’s sin spread through all humankind and took hold of all, so Christ, who created and redeemed all, will glorify all, once he takes possession of all.from an Advent sermon by St. Bernard