THE MULTIPLICATION OF THE LOAVES
HOMILY IN THE CHURCH OF THE NATIVITY OF OUR LADY
KEADUE, CO ROSCOMMON
BY CARDINAL CAHAL B. DALY
Sunday 31st July 2005, 10.00 am
(18th Sunday of the Year A)
The Gospel today is St. Matthew’s account of the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves. This account is found, with minor variations, in the three gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke; it is, clearly, seen as a very important part of Our Lord’s life and teaching.
In all three gospels, the account is part of a whole section of the life of Jesus, which shows him teaching the crowds, healing the sick, and giving signs of his divine power. In other words, the Lord was leading them to faith, preparing them to become members of the group of disciples who were to be the first members of his Church.
After the long time they had spent with the Lord, the people were now hungry; but the place was a desert space, far away from any village or any shop where they could buy food. Jesus then asked the disciples to give the crowds some food. But they had brought very little food with them – in fact, only five loaves and two fish; and what use was that to feed so many? There were no less than five thousand men, not counting the women and the children. Jesus said to the disciples: “Ask the people to sit down and bring the loaves and fish to me”. The fish, by the way, were to be cut up in little pieces to be placed between the slices of bread, so as to make what we would call sandwiches.
Jesus then took the loaves, raised his eyes to heaven, said the blessing and then broke the loaves and then handed them to the disciples, who gave them to the crowds. They all ate as much as they wanted.
Do these words remind you of anything? Have you heard them in any other context, apart from this gospel? Remember what the priest does and says at the Consecration of the bread and the wine in every Mass. Using the very words that Jesus used at the Last Supper and doing the very things that Jesus did at the Last Supper, the priest takes the bread of the Eucharist into his hands and says (and if one puts the two sets of words in parallel columns, the point is made clearer):
Eucharistic Prayer 1
The day before he suffered
he took bread into his sacred hands
and, looking up to heaven,
to you, his almighty Father,
he gave you thanks and praise.
He broke the bread,
gave it to his disciples and said,
Take this all of you and eat it.
This is my body
which will be given up for you.
Multiplication of loaves
(Jesus) took the five loaves …
raised his eyes to heaven
and said the blessing,
and breaking the loaves,
he handed them to his disciples,
who gave them to the crowds.
Clearly, Jesus already had the Eucharist in mind when he multiplied the loaves. What he said and did then was intended to prepare his hearers for the great gift of the Mass, which we receive this Sunday morning. No wonder it is called the Day of the Lord, Dé Domhnaigh, or, as some Christians call it, the Lord’s Day.
The Manna in the Desert
But the multiplication of the loaves reminds us of something else as well. It points back to the Old Testament story of Moses, as well as forward to the Mass. After leaving Egypt and crossing the Red Sea, the people of Israel found themselves in a vast desert, where there was no food and there were no villages where food could be found. They were famishing with hunger and began to complain bitterly against Moses for bringing them there to die from starvation, and they grumbled against God for forgetting His promises. Moses prayed for help and God answered his prayer. Next morning, the people found the ground covered with a scattering of little grains like coriander seed, which could be boiled and eaten like porridge or baked and eaten like wafers of unleavened bread. The Israelites did not know what this strange food was and they asked one another, ‘What is it?’ (in Hebrew, ‘M?n h?’): hence the term ‘Manna’. In the evening, the sky was black with flocks of birds called quails, which the people were able to catch and cook for food.
There was a peculiarity about the Manna: each one was able to gather as much as he needed or wanted; if he took more and tried to store it, he would find in his store only what he needed, no more and no less. If took two days supply, when he went to his store he would find there only enough for one day. The exception was the Sabbath Day (which was the Jewish Saturday, corresponding to our Sunday). No manna could be gathered on that day for that was a day for the Lord, a day of rest and prayer. The Sabbath day’s supply was gathered on the Friday. There was no need to be over-anxious about tomorrow. The Lord gives us each day enough for that day, and he will do the same for us tomorrow, if we trust Him.
Let us now go forward again to the Gospel account of the multiplication of the loaves. The Gospel tells us: “They all ate as much as they wanted”. As with the manna, so also with the multiplication of the loaves, and so also with the Eucharist. Each person receives from each day’s Mass and Holy Communion, as much as each one wants and needs for that day. Each Sunday, each person receives from that Sunday’s Mass as much as each one wants and needs for the coming week. There is no need to worry anxiously about tomorrow or about next week: the Lord will provide for tomorrow and for next week if we trust Him. This is why Jesus himself taught us to pray: “Give us this day our daily bread”.
The Mass is our sufficient supply of energy-building spiritual food and spiritual “vitamins” for today; tomorrow there is always another Mass. Each Sunday the Lord gives us a sufficient supply for that day and for that week; and next Sunday there is another Mass. From each Mass we receive as much as we need and as much as we want. But how much do we want from Mass? How much do you want from this Mass? How much do I want from this Mass? Mother Teresa’s nuns display in each of their sacristies over the bench where the priest vests for Mass, a notice which says:
“Dear priest of God,
celebrate this Mass as if it were your first Mass,
your last Mass,
your only Mass.”
The same applies to each of us. The words, “We get from this Mass as much as we want”, also means: “We get from this Mass as little as we want”. Some people are heard nowadays to say: “The Mass is boring. It doesn’t do anything for me”. Are you sure that the fault is not with you, rather than with the Mass?. Have I tried hard enough to deepen my faith, so as to understand the Mass better? Do I pay enough attention to the readings, to the sermon, to the words spoken by the priest? At Mass, the priest speaks the words of Jesus Christ and acts in the person of Jesus Christ. The priest may have, as I have and as we all have, his particular character and his mannerisms and his foibles, but, at Mass, he acts in the person of Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ is acting through him. Remember that you will get from Mass as much as you want to get from it; if you want little, you will get little.
But “little” won’t do. That’s the way of spiritual anorexia; when what we need is spiritual vitamins, and we need them perhaps more today than people ever did in history before. Not only is there very little in our newspapers or television or radio programmes today that will support our faith; there is much that conflicts with it, criticises it, tries to ridicule it; or at least, which offers us a way of life that has no need for God, no place for God, no time for God. To give just one example, behaviour which, until recently, was regarded by all Christians and by very many non-Christians as morally wrong is now presented to us as modern and liberal and progressive and civilised and normal and supported by law and seen as part of the life-style expected of modern and enlightened people. To question this behaviour is to be usually met, not with reasoned argument or debate, but with outrage and name-calling: one will be called a fundamentalist, a reactionary, someone who is harking back to a backward and ignorant Catholic past. This, I have said, is not the language of reasoned debate but is simply propaganda, and indeed a form of spiritual and moral conditioning or brain-washing. It resembles the tactics of some skilled advertisers: attach favourable adjectives to your preferred brand-name so as to bring about “pro-attitudes” to the brand; and, sometimes, add negative adjectives to the rival brand and arouse “anti-attitudes” to it.
What is clear is that we do need spiritual health-supplements nowadays to stand firm against such criticism. We need the Mass as never before. We need to deepen our faith, to strengthen our hope, to increase our charity. But, whatever happens, we have the certainty, which nothing can take away from us, that Christ is with us. We have the assurance of Christ’s own words: “Do not be afraid. I am with you”. As St. Paul puts it in today’s second reading:
“I am certain of this: neither death nor life, no angel, no prince, nothing that exists, nothing still to come, not any power or height or depth nor any created thing can ever come between us and the love of God, made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord”. Amen.