Today’s readings: Isaiah 55, 1-3; Romans 8, 35.37-39; Matthew 14, 13-21.
When trials abound, civilisations are at risk and people are confused, sound leadership is pivotal. But nowadays populism is trendy and thriving, exploiting the crowds’ basic needs and instincts. It can be attractive in the short term. The long-term demands vision and foresight to strike a balance between superficial needs and what nourishes the spirit.
Compared to what the world can promise, the little the Church is supposed to have and give, represented in today’s gospel by the “five loaves and two fish”, can compensate for all that money cannot buy. The prophet Isaiah downplays the value of money at a time when Israel was economically flourishing. He warns that there are essentials money cannot buy, and he calls on those who have no money to come and eat. This constitutes the prophetic power of the Church in the world. Today we have all the tools to read the times and analyse what people desire, think and need. Sixty years ago, this call to read the times made the Church engage in a conciliar process to seek renewal and reform. But mission-wise, it is now long overdue for the Church to move on to a further stage, to stop being self-referential and reset its priorities.
The Gospel shows it is not enough to empathise with people’s needs. Being prophetic is about discerning in depth what is impoverishing our lives and providing the alternative. The miraculous gesture of Jesus when he implored the disciples to feed the crowds themselves, coupled with the prophetic vision of Isaiah who speaks of what really nourishes the soul, delineate this alternative for us.
We live in a culture of extremes where a few have abundantly and many have less than little. It is a culture that witnesses to the failure of great political struggles and dreams and, to some extent, the failure of Christianity itself, given that the West has for entire centuries been shaped by the values of Christendom.
The gospel narrative demonstrates how the Church, like Jesus, is called to tap uncharted grounds. Jesus sensed the great difficulty to get through with his message in town. “He withdrew by boat to a lonely place” and it is there, distant from town, that he could concretely make himself understood with words and signs.
In our times it is becoming ever clearer that the Church’s uphill struggle in the face of the dominant culture is leading nowhere. The Church needs to withdraw to “lonely places” where people come face to face with their nakedness. ‘In town’, the Church is becoming more and more irrelevant, and religion is simply an element of a consumer culture.
We’ve just emerged from a period where our churches were closed due to the pandemic. Now that we have resumed our celebrations, it is clear that nothing has changed for us and that our priorities have remained untouched. It is good that we remind ourselves that the Eucharist, as the feeding of the crowd in the gospel, is meant to be the sign of God’s kingdom on earth. As long as the serious predicaments of a sick world continue to crucify humanity, the eucharistic sign will continue to lose its efficacy and power to heal.
What sense does it have to celebrate the sign when the signified is grossly lacking? The sin that makes illegitimate our participation in the Eucharist is whatever contradicts God’s project of a kingdom on earth where all have equal dignity and access to their daily bread. In town, where people seem to have everything, we are failing and we need to withdraw to the ‘lonely places’ where people come face to face with their ‘poverty’ and are more open to listen to God’s voice and see his wonders.
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