Sunday, July 26, 2009
17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
For most of this year,
our Gospel reading is taken from the Gospel of Mark,
but today we begin what we might call
the lectionary's “Johannine digression.”
For today and for the next four Sundays following,
our Gospel reading is taken from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel,
the so-called “Bread of Life Discourse.”
It is in this section of his Gospel that John,
who does not recount Jesus’ words
over the bread and wine at the Last Supper,
shows us Jesus speaking of himself
as the true bread that has come down from heaven
and in whom we abide by eating his Eucharistic flesh.
John prefaces this “Bread of Life Discourse” with a miracle story
that is found in all four of the Gospels:
the familiar story of Jesus feeding the multitude
with five loaves and two fish.
John underscores the Eucharistic echoes of this miracle,
by telling us that it occurs at Passover time —
the same time when Jesus will eat
his final meal with his disciples one year later —
and he describes the actions of Jesus in the same terms
used by the other Gospel writers at the Last Supper:
Jesus takes the loaves, gives thanks, and distributes them.
In feeding the multitude,
Jesus foreshadows what he will do at the Last Supper,
and what he does for us every time we gather at his altar.
In preaching on this text, St. John Chrysostom,
who lived in the last half of the 4th century,
raised an interesting question:
why doesn’t Jesus simply create food out of thin air?
Why bother to multiply the food that was there,
rather than simply make new food from nothing?
After all, barley loaves and pickled fish
were pretty simple, lowbrow food —
a young boy's lunch;
maybe the first-century equivalent
of saltines and canned sardines —
and Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh,
through whom the universe was created from nothing,
could surely have conjured up something more exciting,
something more elegant,
something that would be a special treat
for the multitude that had followed him across the sea of Galilee.
So why does he choose not to throw out that simple peasant food
and create from nothing a great feast of the finest delicacies?
According to Chrysostom, it is because he wished to use
“the creation itself as a groundwork for his marvels”
(Homily 42 on the Gospel of John).
Rather than create something anew,
Jesus takes what is already at hand,
and transforms it by multiplying it,
so as to feed a multitude.
It seems to me that in wishing to use creation
as the groundwork for his miracle
Jesus is pointing out two things to us.
First, creation itself is already miraculous.
John Chrysostom’s contemporary, St. Augustine,
in preaching on this same passage,
noted how odd it is
that the multitude marvels
at the multiplication of the loaves and fishes,
but takes no notice of the miraculous fact
of God’s on-going and continuous activity in the world.
He says, “Governing the entire universe is a greater miracle
than feeding five thousand people with five loaves of bread,
yet no one marvels at it.
People marvel at the feeding of the five thousand
not because this miracle is greater,
but because it is out of the ordinary”
(Homilies on the Gospel of John 24, 1.6.7).
Jesus works miracles not to convince us
that God can, on occasion, do extraordinary things,
but to awaken us to the fact
that God does extraordinary things all the time.
This is why in John’s Gospel
the miracles are always referred to as “signs.”
Like a sign, they point away from themselves to something else:
the constant extraordinary action of God
in what we think of as the most ordinary events of life.
Second, the way God works in the world
is not by discarding the ordinary realities of creation
and substituting for them something new and different,
but by taking what is already at hand and transforming it.
If God’s creation and preservation of the world is itself a miracle,
as Augustine said,
then God does not need something “better” to work with
in order to save us.
Just as Christ uses the simple loaves of barley
to feed the multitude,
so too he can use the simple substance of our lives
to make his kingdom present.
We might look at our lives and ask, like Andrew in today’s Gospel,
“what good is this for so many?’
but it is good enough if Christ takes it and blesses it.
An adage of traditional Catholic theology
is that “grace perfects and does not destroy nature.”
This means that becoming a new creation in Christ
does not involve the destruction of who we are
but rather is our perfecting and transformation
into who we truly are in God’s eyes,
the miraculous beings whom God has loved into existence.
So as we continue to reflect on this story
of the miraculous feeding of the multitude,
let us pray that we grow ever more attentive
to the miraculous ways in which God feeds us everyday,
the way in which God feeds our bodies
with the food that comes from the earth,
and the way in which God feeds our souls with Christ,
the bread who has come down from heaven.
Let the miracle of the Eucharist awaken us to the ways in which
God uses the daily bread of our lives
and transforms and perfects it to become the bread of angels.
Don’t miss the miracle that you live everyday,
because it is this everyday life
that Christ will take into his hands,
and multiply to feed a multitude.