Reflections for July 31, 2011 

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is 55:1-3; Ps 145: 8-9, 15-16, 17-18; Rom 8:35, 37-39; Mt 14:13-21

The theme of feeding is impossible to miss in this Sunday’s readings. It is also difficult to miss in the larger narrative of salvation history. Appropriately, this week’s Gospel story of the loaves and fishes feeding five thousand plus women and children (Mt 14:13-21) makes allusions looking both to the past and to the future. Looking to the past, we are reminded of the people of Israel who, also traveling in a deserted place, are nourished with manna from heaven (Ex 16; Num 11). Looking to the future, we recall the promise of the heavenly banquet where all shall be nourished more exquisitely than ever before.

The imagery of eating and feeding is central to our Christian story, epitomized in our Eucharistic celebrations. Indeed, food aptly captures some of the most profound mysteries of our faith. Most obviously, it is life-giving and in need of constant replenishment. For purposes of this reflection however, I want to focus on the union that food makes possible.

The act of eating is an intimate union even in the material sense. We literally incorporate (from Latin in¬- + corpor-, corpus body) the fruits of creation. On a molecular level, it is not much exaggeration to say that we become what we eat. The spiritual analogy is plain to see as we approach the Eucharist with hearts and souls that long for an eschatological union with God. Yet, the nourishment of the Eucharist is unitive is another crucial way; it points to the union of the body being gathered together, the People of God.

This communal aspect of eating and feeding is fundamental. Every time we gather around a table together, we are to become more united. The miracle of the loaves and fishes is not that each individual in that crowd of thousands had his or her needs met. Individual dining might have occurred without the intervention of Jesus; the disciples suggested that the crowds be dismissed “so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.” Perhaps they could have done so (even if inefficiently). But to be truly fed, we cannot simply be dispersed and left to our own devices. True nourishment requires union among people. Barbara Reid notes the relevance of the community in her reflections on this Gospel in America:

Jesus directs [the disciples] away from an impulse toward self-sufficiency to a solution that depends on remaining in community and pooling and redistributing their resources.

The nourishment we seek is not possible to access in isolation. In the First Reading from Isaiah, the LORD sends forth a broad invitation to gather a people around the true bread of an everlasting covenant: “All you who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat” (Is 55:1). The heavenly banquet seems to promise a bustling feast in a hall that exceeds all imaginable fire-code capacities. Thus, if eating and feeding are fundamental images for salvation, then salvation too must be deeply rooted in a union that is communal in nature. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, acknowledges this aspect of salvation:

At all times and in every race God has given welcome to whosoever fears Him and does what is right.(85) God, however, does not make men holy and save them merely as individuals, without bond or link between one another. Rather has it pleased Him to bring men together as one people, a people which acknowledges Him in truth and serves Him in holiness. (Lumen Gentium, 9; cf. Gaudium et Spes, 32)

The feeding of thousands with loaves and fishes is a joyful mystery manifested in and through the gathered community. True nourishment is conditioned upon remaining together.

This poses a profound moral challenge to us in a time of weighing our responsibilities for one another. Many of my colleagues on this blog have already made excellent contributions regarding this topic. At this very moment, the enormous humanitarian crisis in East Africa shows the scope of such devastation and shows the long way we have to go in terms of being fed in unity as brothers and sisters.

The truth is that we cannot be fed and we cannot be saved in isolation. A number of California prisoners have made this point in their own way of late. In a remarkable show of unity, thousands of prisoners participated in a 21-day hunger strike during the month of July, protesting abysmal conditions including the excessive use of solitary confinement. Even the act of refusing to eat can bring the unity that bespeaks the justice of the heavenly banquet.

This week’s readings remind us that true nourishment requires the bond of community. Let us continue to do our part to remain together, making sure that all are fed.