Every Sunday after Mass and every Thursday night study session we have “manna from Heaven”. There is no sign-up list for refreshments, but every week, something yummy appears for us to snack on. It really is like manna because the treats sometimes seem to appear out of nowhere.
We, of course, remember the first story about manna, centuries before the time of Jesus. The children of Israel left their time of slavery in Egypt, and spent forty years wandering in the wilderness. There was nowhere to get food and water, but God mysteriously provided “manna” each morning on the ground—not a lot, but enough to sustain them all those years. God miraculously provided water for the people, too. It wasn’t much, but it was enough.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus has just received word that John the Baptist has been beheaded. Knowing full well that he could be next, Jesus needed some time alone. He needed to pray and reflect and recharge his spiritual energy.
But people heard where Jesus was, and they swarmed into the wilderness, seeking healing and wisdom and hope from Jesus. They stayed all day, and Jesus, motivated by his deep compassion for the hurting, healed the sick. The day was almost over. People were getting hungry, and the disciples reported this to Jesus. “Send them to the villages nearby,” they recommended, “so they can buy food.” “No, you give them something to eat!” Jesus commanded. And the disciples protested, “We only have five loaves of bread and two fish, Jesus!” That would hardly be enough to feed all of them.
But in the hands of Jesus, five loaves and two fish were enough. He took the bread, and blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the disciples, with instructions to give it to the crowd. “Took…blessed…broke…and gave”—does that language sound familiar? Historical Jesus researchers are not unanimous in this, but there are several who suggest that the original Eucharist wasn’t bread and wine at all, but rather bread and fish. For those of us who don’t eat fish except as an extreme Lenten penance, this is a revolting thought, but if we consider the curious telling and retelling of the bread and fish miracle in the synoptics, it’s not really that far-fetched.
In the hands of Jesus, the loaves and fishes are sufficient. There are even leftovers, meaning that even in the wilderness when we are most alone and afraid, hungering for a piece of God, there is always enough of God’s bounty to sustain us. For Matthew, who is writing for his Jewish contemporaries, this is clearly a retelling of the miracle of the manna in the wilderness. The message is clear: It is happening all over again! In the wilderness of Galilee, a hungry crowd receives enough to satisfy its hunger, and there were even leftovers! Where God is at work—even in the wilderness—there is enough compassion and divine abundance to meet every human need! There is enough to sustain hungry bodies and spirits, and even enough to share!
When I think of the suffering in the world–especially the brutal suffering from injustice and oppressive attitudes and behavior—my own tendency is to want to “get away” from it. Sometimes I have to turn off the television and block it from my thoughts. By the time I go ashore, if you will, it is as if my pain, anger, confusion, sorrow–whatever thoughts and emotions I have been dealing with–all motivate me to think about a solution, to find some way to make a positive difference. Isn’t it true that when you and I (as individuals or as a community of faith) come out of the solitude of grief, having prayerfully reflected on our own suffering –isn’t it true that it is precisely at those junctures that we find ourselves empowered to change things so that others will not suffer or be wronged in the same way?
Jesus did something that evening that has become so familiar to us–He took, blessed, broke and gave to his disciples. This image is at the heart of our Christian worship—the Mass. But these were not the only eucharistic actions of that day. For after Jesus had given the broken bread to the disciples, Scripture tells us the disciples then gave the bread to the crowds. Taking, blessing, breaking, and giving are at the heart of our eucharistic worship. And they are at the heart of our eucharistic life–a life of compassion and abundance. If we fail to make the connection between the Eucharist we receive and the life we live, we miss the whole point. It is then just ancient ritual, something of a museum-quality antique that has no real function.
Our society and our world are largely preoccupied with separations–people being separated out and turned away because of trouble, hard times, hatred, hunger, homelessness, bullying and backstabbing, to repeat only the ones Paul mentions. Sadly, the list does not stop there. But the compassionate Jesus says, “no” to separations. In the wilderness of our difficulties God does not send any one of us away, rather, God sets the table and provides food enough. No one can be separated from the love of God. Out of his own pain and sorrow experienced over John the Baptist’s death, Jesus reached out and broke bread with the people he held in his heart. He gave the bread to his disciples and told them to go and do likewise, promising them that they would do greater miracles than he would ever accomplish in his lifetime.
There are hungry people right now—people starving and dying because they don’t have enough to eat, most of whom are women and children. In our own country there are 3.5 million people who are chronically hungry or at risk of chronic hunger. Then there are countless others who are starving for love, for acceptance, for healing of soul and body and mind, for a feeling that they matter in this crazy world. Jesus says to his disciples, “You give them something to eat!”
The Dalai Lama once delivered a speech in which he addressed some of the needs of the world, and he called for compassion from the world’s people of faith. After the speech, there was a question and answer session. Someone asked him, “What’s your solution for addressing the problem of world hunger?” The audience got quiet and settled in, expecting a long, thorough response. Instead, the Dalai Lama paused dramatically—and then spoke one word: “Sharing.”
In the face of the world’s enormous needs for nourishment—food for the body, and food for the spirit—we wonder if we can do anything that will really make a difference. Well, we can. We can share. We think that what we have may not be much—but it is enough, enough to share!
We have all received from God’s bounty, and we are asked simply to give, to pass it on. We have received the good news that God is with us to forgive, to give hope and life, and we are asked to share that news. We have received daily bread, enough financial resources to live on, countless blessings from God, and we are asked to share them to give life to the world. To make the world better for those who suffer needlessly. To recreate the world into God’s Realm where no one’s hurt, no one’s scared and no one’s hungry for anything.