We continue our lectio by praying with the next few verses of Mark’s Gospel…
THE KINGDOM FEAST
There are few passages in the Gospels which have so forcefully inserted themselves into the popular mind like the miracle which we now pray with, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, or the feeding of the multitude. As stories go it is a gripping one: huge crowds swarming about the place; in their midst, a charismatic young preacher, whom they have been following around and who has been exciting them and engaging them with his teaching and deeds; his close followers at sixes and sevens, seemingly overwhelmed by the problem that he poses them; a few simple morsels of food; and suddenly, everyone fed! It’s difficult to believe, and impossible to explain – without faith.
Mark constructs this scene in such a way that we can easily become one in the crowd, witnessing, participating, wondering, eating, laughing. Perhaps we might feel more comfortable as one of the disciples, because incredulity and bemusement accompany us in our faith lives. Whatever, perhaps it is good to live this scene, as it were, or live in it and through it as it evolves. How does it feel to have arrived at this point, ahead of Jesus and his disciples, waiting expectantly, excitedly, with anticipation? Perhaps this is the first time you have really caught sight of him, heard him speak, seen him “in action”, as it were. What have you heard about it before this to make you come all this way?
Look around you; listen; smell. See what kind of place you are in, this new amphitheatre for encounter which God has chosen, even though you think you have chosen it. What have you brought with you? Ah, a loaf of bread. Or perhaps two very stinky fish! Nothing? Yourself, surely!
And now he arrives, and the crowd press forward, and rush into the water to greet him, and touch his hand, or have a hand laid upon them, and speak their name to him. It’ll take a long time for this crowd to settle – but in no time, it seems, he has settled you, and he begins to speak.
When his eye falls upon you, in the vast sea of people which begins somewhere in the water and rises out of the water and seamlessly spills onto the land … when his eye falls upon you, finds you in that vast but silent crowd, what do you ask him for? He is asking you, without speaking the words – What can I give you that you need? What can I give you today which will feed you and satisfy your need?
In the first instance, as we said, Jesus is on his own territory – this is a place set apart, different to the usual humdrum mundane context in which we usually find ourselves, a place in which prayer happens, encounter with God happens, faith things happen. It’s Jesus’ place, but he makes it theirs, and so also ours. We need to be aware that Jesus firstly teaches the crowds at length, or, to be precise, teaches them many things. We have to presume that these people are hearing these “many things” for the first time. Or perhaps, since Jesus is, after all, a Jewish teacher, well versed in the Sacred Scriptures precious to the Jewish community, that he is teaching in a way which makes these truths seem new, seem fresh, because he invests his teachings with a newness and freshness. It is as much to do with the reception of the people around him as to the content. Jesus makes the truths with which they are already familiar come alive for them, and he invites their hearts to come alive, to be expanded so that they can wonder at what God has in store for them, and what God is already revealing in their lives lived through faith. Suddenly, the Word has become a living thing for these people who listen to Jesus and receive what he offers them – the Word feeds them, the Word nourishes them, the Word satisfies them.
Of course, we have to be careful not to read into a passage what is not there. It’s doubtful that Mark intended any kind of religious symbol model to be discovered here – this is not a matter of a liturgy of the Word and a liturgy of the Eucharist! We are not dealing with a clever type of the institution of the Eucharist – the Eucharist will come later, at its proper time. But we cannot ignore the fact that Jesus, as he has done before, and indeed as we noted his disciples did on their missionary journey – teaching and deeds together – does the very same here.
Teaching and works always complement one another – they bear one another out, they expand the meaning of each other, they reveal a fullness in each other by completing the other. Works insinuate teaching into our experience, they concretize the abstract, they draw us into the world of wisdom.
The disciples wish to dismiss the great crowds, and who can blame them! They had come away with Jesus, at his invitation, to a place apart so that they might themselves get rest and time alone with the Teacher, and now they have spent all this considerable time, no doubt, marshalling these people. The insistence again by Mark that “this is a lonely place” serves to remind us of the context in which all this is taking place. And to compound this the disciples suggest that the people go to farms and villages round about to get themselves something to eat – in other words, let them return to their usual haunts and get what they need there. But Jesus does not want them to go to the usual places.
And this is really what we are being asked to consider. Jesus is about to give these people what they need. There is no account in Mark’s Gospel of Jesus teaching his disciples the prayer which becomes the model of all prayer – that is to be found in Matthew and Luke. However, at this point, the most basic need of all, the need for food in the form of a very simple meal, is about to be fulfilled, and spectacularly. We should be very clear in our reading of this – this need represents all the needs that we ask to be fulfilled when we pray. And the miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes is a clear sign that God does give us exactly what we need – we do not always expect how he accomplishes this since that is most particularly his business, but we must be on the lookout for his doing so.
What kind of a place is this? Mark, with the use of a single adjective – “green” – transforms the place which we had called “desert”. But this is a desert, a lonely place, like no other. With this single term, applied to the grass, we suddenly have the feeling of life, freshness, verdure. This is no arid place, no sandy waste, no place of death – this is a place of life! We are asked to confirm absolutely for ourselves that we are not dealing with a place but with an attitude, a desire, an opening up which provides all that is essential for the fruitful encounter with God. God doesn’t need this place – but we do! There is no magic here – just the mystery of God’s creative presence.
Mark establishes now the pattern which will become the moment of eucharist and new covenant at the Passover celebration (14:22-25). But in the first instance he paints the picture of any meal celebrated by a Jewish family or community coming together – a series of blessings and distribution of food according to need. The same, with a little modification, will be repeated at the second miraculous multiplication. But what we know certainly is that Jesus is at one with the Father in all this – he raises his eyes to heaven, praying to and with the Father in this profound moment of benediction. He and the Father are one as they provide for the needs of those gathered around on the green grass. This is, by the sharing of this great meal, a new place and a new community and family in the most intimate of sharing moments – a community comes into existence in a new way when a meal is taken. Not for nothing does the Cistercian Father, Baldwin of Forde, define community as “the love of sharing and the sharing of love”. The principal of love here is revealed in that moment when Jesus was moved with great compassion, in the very deepest part of his being, for these people who had followed him, and out of that great compassion consoled them.
The four verbs become emblematic, since they are fixed now by Jesus’ action in our minds and memories and will be repeated in a new way at the institution of the sacrament of his Body and Blood – he takes, says the blessing, breaks and hands out. Yes, the meal is ritualistic, and this is important. In itself, the establishing of ritual helps to mark out and set aside, to make different and special, to dedicate, in a sense, for a different and new purpose. Ritual is a part of all our lives, from the mundane repetition of daily tasks to those now and again rituals which mark events of a special nature, to the sacred rituals which consecrate not just moments but whole passages in life. And to ritualise is to accord special significance, especially if we do it by asking God’s blessing. Perhaps we need to do this more, and be more habitual about it – to ask God’s blessing on our tasks and undertakings, on the daily work, on each new encounter and meeting, on the mundane and ordinary. It is a reminder that everything good which we do and undertake – task, word, prayer – has its beginning in God and its final end and completion in God. Asking blessings bridges the gap between my own presumed self-sufficiency and God’s authorship by opening up to the collaboration with his gift of grace. And in our own lives the use of those objects which are already blessed and sacramental – especially Holy Water, which can become such a simple and yet integral part of our daily lives, a reminder of our baptism and all of the rich biblical imagery and symbolism with which water is invested – can become transformative and focusing, as we consecrate each passing moment and quiet gesture. In this regard, it’s refreshing to read the short reflections offered by Romano Guardini in his little book Sacred Signs, as he considers many of the most simple gestures and elements which we use in our prayer and worship and, in doing so, asks us to restore their importance in our own ritual and prayer.
Why are we so keen to doubt the veracity of this miracle? To say that the miracle took place in the generous charity that all there felt towards one another? To say that the miracle was one which saw each person who had food share with someone or other who had none? To do this is to make shallow the profound sign which Jesus gives! To do so is, typically of a secular and indifferent atheistic age, to deny God. The simple fact of this miracle is that God can and God does, whether we understand or not. The nature of a miracle is precisely that God inserts himself into our concrete reality, that the transcendent enters into and transforms the immanent, that our unbelief is challenged again and we are asked to grow. Again, God uses precisely the need which is shared by these men and women to reveal himself, and invites us to recognise him here. If we refuse to do that we do not ask a question of God – a question is asked of us.
As if to drive home the point, the people are given all they want to eat, at this time, and we have the footnote, although hardly significant, that twelve baskets of scraps are collected after the great meal. There is a precious quality about the scraps – nothing is to be wasted from what has been left over. And we can hardly say that these are “left overs” – such a great quantity, and significantly in twelve baskets.
In all that has gone before in this account – the coming away to a lonely and separate place, which becomes a place of God encounter, or rather, of an openness to God’s presence and work; Christ himself once again coming into the centre of the great crowd who, having been attracted by all that they have seen and heard, follow him, even anticipating where he might be and meeting him there; the place itself is revealed as a place, not of dryness but of life; Christ himself feeds, both by word and with bread and fish, the multitude who have listened to him, and been nourished, in body and spirit – in all this, we can say that a new community is coming into being, is finding an identity for itself which depends upon Christ-centredness, the discernment of needs and a common response to Christ’s invitation. And so these twelve baskets full of scraps become very significant – the twelve baskets representing a new Israel, a new twelve tribes which will be fed now, in this life-filled wilderness, with a new bread given by this Son of Man. This new community, truly a kingdom community united around Jesus and fed buy him, in body and soul, with word especially which has encouraged these people to remain with him, will continue to find its identity throughout the Gospel, even though its journey will be a stumbling one, precarious at times and unsure of itself. But it is very clear that when Jesus is present, recognised and welcomed, lives change and conversion is linked to transformation.
It’s clear that we are mistaken if we consider these scrap waste. If we look forward to Mark 7, the very next chapter, we read the story of Jesus’ encounter with a Syro-Phoenician woman, who comes to him to plead for her daughter, who is ill. The famous to-and-fro conversation between the two reaches its climax with the woman getting the better of Jesus – “the house dogs under the table can eat the children’s scraps” (Mark 7:28). Although the Greek words are different – klasmata in the feeding of the multitude, psichion at 7:28 – still the link cannot be overlooked. The leftovers, the scraps, the bits of bread which were used at a meal to wipe the oil from greasy hands and then thrown under the table for the dogs – none of these are wasted when Christ is present. Each scrap, each fragment given by Christ is a feast and answers a need!
For us this is the action of grace – even a scrap, an intimation, the smallest and most fleeting moment can become a moment of salvific significance when Christ is present and working. There are no scraps in the Kingdom, because each apparently insignificant morsel feeds entirely, abundantly, to meet the needs of the kingdom members.
In the same way, we might look at another passage in the gospels, this time in a section peculiar to Luke. In the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus we have a typically Lucan contrast between two figures, painted poles apart. While the Rich Man feasts magnificently every day the poor man at his gate longs to fill himself with the scraps that fell from the Rich Man’s table. In this instance, in life, the poor man, Lazarus, is denied the slightest assistance which would have given him a modicum of dignity, and would have raised him up even a little above the dogs who got what scraps there were to be had. So, the contrast is even greater when he is given everything by being carried to the bosom of Abraham, to a rest which could never have been experienced in this life. The word for scraps here – psichion – is the same that we encounter in the dialogue with the Syro-Phoenician woman.
A little can make a very great difference, in fact, all the difference when Christ is involved in the providing. There can be a clear invitation to us here – how we often overlook the very simple provisions of grace in our lives, the slightest word or gesture, which can be life transforming, because we are always on the lookout for the ground shaking and spellbinding. But the miracle is already contained in the ordinary, which reveals in its very simplicity the extraordinary.
Reclaim the ordinary, and allow its ritual to become life giving!
-Part of our continuous lectio divina on the Gospel According to Mark-