Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Advent Journal, Day 4: Who Feeds the Hungry?

Readings: Isaiah 25:6-10, Matthew 15:29-37. 

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands,
Yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes,
You are his body.
Christ has no body but yours.

That inspiring quote has often been attributed to St. Teresa of Avila, though it appears nowhere in her writings. (And I'd know, because I have all her writings.) But she would no doubt have agreed with the general sentiment -- even though any Catholic would tell you that Christ does still have a body on Earth, in the form of the consecrated Eucharist.

In any event, it reminds me of another old quip, wherein a man looks around at all the suffering in the world and thinks to ask God, "Why don't you do something about this mess?" But then he decides not to ask, because he's afraid God will ask him the same question.

Those thoughts came to me as I was reflecting on what to say about today's Gospel reading. The feeding of the multitudes is the only one of Jesus' miracles recorded in all four Gospels, and Matthew and Mark mention two such occurrences. So it would seem that these events are ones that the Gospel writers wanted us to pay particular attention to.

In today's reading, people come from all around to hear Jesus preaching. The sick were placed at his feet, and he healed them all, making the lame walk and the blind see, and all those present praised the God of Israel for his love and mercy. The crowds remained with him for three days, after which Jesus wanted to feed them all before they dispersed, concerned that they may collapse of hunger if they were to leave with their stomachs empty.

The disciples, always seeming to fail to understand that Jesus can do anything he wants, look on incredulously and ask how they could ever hope to feed so many people -- 4,000 in all. (Actually, 4,000 men, "besides women and children," because the Gospel writers were of an age when men counted more than women and children.)

Jesus, no doubt resisting the urge to facepalm, turns to the disciples and asks how many loaves of bread they have. "Seven," they tell him, "and a few small fish."

So Jesus blesses the loaves and fishes, gives them to the disciples, and has them distribute the food to the crowd. The thousands there all ate until they were satisfied, and after they left, the disciples picked up seven baskets full of leftover bread.

There are many lessons to be taken away from this passage. The most obvious is that Jesus can perform miracles, offering further evidence of his divinity. That's the surface reading. Also present is the message that God will provide in abundance to those who are faithful and trust in him -- a nod, perhaps, to the days when God rained manna down from heaven to feed the Israelites in the desert. And there may also be a foreshadowing of the Last Supper. If so, it's notable that Jesus fed everyone who came to hear him without discrimination -- a marked contrast to the Catholic Eucharist, which the church keeps fenced off from anyone who's not a member of the Catholic church, and even then only to those who are deemed to be in a state of grace. "I am the Bread of Life," Jesus says in the Gospel of John. "I will never turn away anyone who comes to me." Perhaps the church ought to take those words to heart -- but that's a complaint for another time.

But what struck me most about today's reading is that even though Jesus miraculously multiplied the food so that everyone had enough, he made the disciples distribute the food. That may seem like a small point, but I think it would be a mistake to gloss over it, as it speaks to the expectations Jesus had of his followers. In Matthew 25, Jesus separates the sheep from the goats -- the worthy from the unworthy -- according to how they treated those who had nothing. He condemned those who failed to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty. He didn't care about whether his followers went to church, or covered their heads, or said the correct prayers. He only cared about their treatment of "the least of these," for, he tells us, how we treat the lowest is how we treat him. And that's because he sides with the lowly -- the people who have no social standing, those who are poor, the sick, the hated, the condemned. He wants us to see him when we look into the eyes of the homeless man on the corner, or the refugee seeking a better life. And the only way we can do that is to carry on his work, in love and mercy, serving those who have nothing.

Therefore, we are his hands and feet.

Teresa of Avila may not have spoken those opening words, but two of the most revered saints of East and West have expressed similar sentiments for those who would claim to follow Christ.

"Do not grieve or complain that you were born in a time when you can no longer see God in the flesh," St. Augustine wrote. "He did not in fact take this privilege from you. As he says, 'Whatever you have done to the least of my brothers, you did to me.'"

Similarly, in the words of St. John Chrysostom, "If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice."

And so it was that, in more recent times, Pope Francis said: "First you pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That's how prayer works."

Thus, we become the change we wish to see in the world. And by doing so, we become instruments of God, the hands and feet of Christ himself, carrying out the merciful work of the divine.

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