This feast was established for the entire Church in 1264. It was intended as a way to honor Christ present in the Eucharist. This was the time when Eucharistic devotions made their appearance---Blessed Sacrament processions, visits to the Blessed Sacrament and expositions of the Sacrament. While these were good devotions, the links that had been expressed previously in the early church between the Eucharistic assembly and the Eucharistic meal, became weakened. Thus, the notion that the Eucharist is the body of Christ – is the Church –declined in awareness.
Just before today’s gospel episode we read that the apostles had returned from their preaching mission and Jesus had wanted time apart with them – but the crowds "found this out and followed him" (9:10-11). Nevertheless, he "received" the crowds; there is a sense of a warm welcome here. Jesus is going to see to all their needs. These were subsistence level people, just a day or two from hunger and even starvation. Nevertheless, the crowds in the story just didn't get "fast food" to fill their bellies, even though they were hungry. First, they heard about God and the announcement of the reign of God from Jesus. Healings followed. But the healings don't just end after the opening line, they are there for the people and us in the feeding as well. Notice the time of day, "As sunset approached." It is getting dark.
There is the darkness of war in our world these days. As I write this the Ukrainians are hanging on by their fingertips under heavy bombardment by the invading Russians. The war is causing another darkness: it has destroyed Ukraine’s supply and export of wheat. That darkness, even in more peaceful times, is always with millions of hungry people throughout the world. The conflict is prompting countries to hoard wheat. The poor of Africa, who rely on this wheat, are on the verge of starvation. Even when war does not destroy food sources, still the poor go hungry.
Economists tell us that there would have enough to eat if the world's food and goods were more equitably distributed. This is a point made by the "Bread for the World" movement. Their literature is readily available and they have an office in Washington for a quick call if we need statistics for preaching, or classes. Try their webpage for a fast response. Or, call a local group that feeds the hungry for information. The gospel story has the word "distribution" in it and the disciples are in charge of that "distribution". We also need to tend to distribution, i.e., to note how things are being distributed. Who are left out when decisions are made locally and on a national level about who gets the "goods" and who does not.
A large crowd is fed and all have "enough." They share a simple meal, all eat, no one gets different, or fancier food and thus there is enough for all. Consider the word – "enough." Who gets "More than enough," in our world; who doesn't get "enough"? Try calling a local food pantry to find out if they have "enough" food. I know a men's group that collects slightly damaged food from local supermarkets that richer people don't buy. They take the food to a food pantry for the poor. Another parish has families taking turns going to a shelter to bring and cook meals on a regular basis. Are there similar efforts in our own congregation that somehow can make Jesus' "feeding presence" felt in the community of the hungry?
The disciples wanted to send the crowd away, push the hungry out of sight and so forget their needs. "As sunset approached...." It is dark indeed because of their blindness. Jesus wants the opposite. Initially he tells the people the very good news of the reign and heals them (the first verse). But then the reign's reality is felt, made visible, "enfleshed," when he responds to their hungry. The disciples now are the ones to receive a healing when they "see" how to address the needs of these people. First there are small groups of 50 – little communities are formed to make the meal personal, to heal the hungers of our alienation.
We are not just an anonymous crowd of "the hungry" any longer. We are a community that shares the bread in a meal of equality. People of higher ranking don’t get more than those of lower; we all get more than enough for our hungers. And as disciples, we learn not to distance ourselves from the needs of others, for in small groups, we get to know each other and are better able to feed the hungers of body and spirit of those around us. Our church communities, though larger than the groups of fifty in the story, become ways we can get to know one another and attend to the hungers we discover there.
In the eucharistic bread and wine today we are receiving the One who invites us to come close and receive a healing. We are also receiving the One who asks his disciples, "Why do you not give them something to eat yourselves?" Our response may be puzzlement and confusion as we look at the enormity of the problem. But the Eucharist can heal us and open our eyes and minds to how we can feed the hungry and where they can be found in our immediate environment. There is a healing for us too in this story, as our eyes are opened, and this healing comes by way of the food Jesus provides.
Here are some other messages we might hear from the Gospel today that are connected to the feast and Eucharist:
– note Jesus' hospitality; so should we be at our celebrations
– he says a blessing; are we aware of the blessing that food is and the gift we enjoy when we eat? Do we treat food as something precious?
– Note how simple meals can satisfy in a community, and how all eat the same food and are nourished.
– God has more than enough (they had "leftovers") to satisfy our hungers at this meal.
– What kind of examples are we setting for our children in regard to simple life styles, care for others, frugality, etc.?
– "...they followed his instructions".....the hungry must be fed, we have his instructions.
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