by Br Julian McDonald cfc
Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, Jesus said the blessing over them, broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. Luke 9, 11-17
Whenever I reflect on and write about Eucharist, I recall the words which St Augustine recommended the priests of his time to say to everyone coming to them for communion. As they held the sacred host to each communicant, he urged them to say: “Behold who you are, become what you receive!” In other words, he wanted everyone coming to communion to hear that they are the Body of Christ and meant to become bread broken and given for the material and spiritual nourishment of the world.
In the four Gospels, there are five accounts of how Jesus, with the help of his disciples, fed large crowds. Two of those accounts are in Mark (6, 31-44; 8, 1-9) and one in each of Matthew (14, 13-21), Luke (9, 12-17) and John (6, 1-14). The more I have read and reflected on these stories, the more convinced I have become that they are all about Jesus teaching those close to him the meaning of discipleship.
Back in 1976, Pedro Arrupe, leader of the Jesuits, said as much when he spoke at a symposium on hunger during the International Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia. Referring to the reality of world hunger as a moral and spiritual problem, he proceeded to say that there is a very definite social dimension to Eucharist, stating: “We cannot properly receive the Bread of Life without sharing bread for life with those in want” (Justice with Faith Today; Selected Letters and Addresses II ed. Jerome Aixala, St Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, “Eucharist and Hunger” pg. 171-181). Arrupe went on to say: “The celebration of Eucharist is incomplete so long as there is hunger in our world.” We participate in Eucharist to be nourished spiritually by God’s word in the readings and by the Bread of Life which we take and eat at communion. Just as we are fed spiritually, we, in turn, are called to feed and nourish one another and our needy sisters and brothers by giving them our time, attention, food, clothing and other necessities. That is the work and ministry of discipleship.
In looking at the context of today’s gospel-reading, we see immediately that it follows soon after the mission experience on which Jesus had sent the Twelve: “Jesus now called the Twelve together and gave them power and authority to overcome all demons and to cure diseases. He sent them forth to proclaim the reign of God and heal the afflicted” (Luke 9, 1-2) – in other words, to offer them spiritual and physical nourishment. The Twelve, after reporting enthusiastically about their success, were invited by Jesus to the quiet of Bethsaida, presumably for some spiritual nourishment for themselves. But they were soon interrupted by a large crowd. The response of Jesus was to reach out to the crowd in the same way as he had directed the Twelve to go about their ministering. The pattern is: take time to be prepared and spiritually nourished and then, in response, reach out in the service of those in need.
Now let’s turn to the account of the feeding of the large crowd. Luke begins by noting that the disciples had learned to be sensitive. It was they who stopped Jesus in his tracks by alerting him to the fact that it was getting late and that the people would need the remaining daylight to get access to food and shelter in nearby towns and villages. Jesus’ response was to challenge them to do something for the crowd themselves. – to apply some of what they had learned on their ministry experience. That amounted to an invitation from Jesus to them to partner him in his mission. And isn’t that exactly what Pedro Arrupe was saying to those who came to hear him in Philadelphia, and to us disciples as well? In addition to noticing need in people around us, we, as disciples of Jesus, have a Gospel responsibility to use our personal, spiritual and material resources to respond to the need we notice.
In the unfolding story, the disciples responded by drawing Jesus’ attention to the scarcity of material resources within their reach. Unconsciously, they were dodging responsibility by claiming that five loaves and a couple of fish would go nowhere.
Then Jesus gave them an object lesson in crowd management by directing them to divide the large crowd into manageable groups of fifty.
Now, we need to take a brief lesson in Greek grammar. The translation from Greek that we have in English records that Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and blessed and broke the loaves and fish. However, the tense of those verbs in Greek sends the message of continuing without stopping. It means that Jesus kept on blessing breaking and giving out the food he was handed, and the disciples kept coming back to collect more to distribute to the groups of fifty. Those same words of blessing, breaking and giving are repeated in every celebration of Eucharist today. We know, too, that they were used again by Jesus when he celebrated his final meal with his disciples on the night before he was executed (see Luke 22, 17-20).
Discipleship of Jesus is generally not a solo activity. The Acts of the Apostles has many accounts of Paul partnering with Barnabas on his missionary journeys and the Gospels tell of the very first disciples going out in twos. That’s why, even now, parishes build groups to reach out to people in need. Project Compassion does its work by calling for individual and community donations to be combined to address in an organised way large-scale situations of dire need like earthquakes, famine, fire and floods.
Researchers in the United Nations tell us that approximately 25,000 people die of starvation every single day of the year. Yet, there is enough food in the world to feed everyone. Seemingly, nations with abundance lack the will to share and/or the capacity to distribute their excess. Mother Teresa once said: “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then just feed one.” If every Christian of means just fed one person every day, there would be no hunger, no starvation in the world. But maybe Eucharist calls us to lobby our politicians to share our abundance with needier nations.
And that takes me back to St Augustine. If the priest does not remind us of his words, we can say to ourselves when we go to communion: “Behold who you are! Become what you receive! (The Body of Christ, given for all! Bread broken and given for a broken people!). At the conclusion of our Eucharistic celebration, we are sometimes dismissed with the words: “Go in peace, glorifying God by your life.” We will do that whenever our giving of ourselves is a source of spiritual and material nourishment for others, especially the needy. To be blind or deaf to that means to ignore what we do when we participate in Eucharist.