We continue our lectio by praying with the next few verses of Mark’s Gospel…
A SECOND COURSE – THE SAME BUT DIFFERENT
There is no repetition in a Gospel simply for the sake of repetition. In this the sacred writings are somewhat akin to music, when a section is marked with a repeat mark: although the very same notes and chords will be played the performer must have a sense of a slightly different feel to the same music and communicate that to the audience. From a different point of view, of course, repetition is at the heart of good teaching, and re-iterating the important points will give greater chance of their sinking in and not being forgotten.
And so it is with this lectio passage. On the face of it, Mark presents us with a second account of a miraculous feeding of a great crowd, and we have only very recently listened to his first account. Some things remain the same here, but other details are altered and invite reflection. And that is precisely what Mark wants: he asks us to be questioned by the text to see how it resonates with us, and how it deepens our experience and awareness of our encounter with Christ.
It should be said at the outset that Mark’s moving into this new section is somewhat artificial and forced – it really bears very little relationship to what has gone directly before it, and he has to twist a little at the close to situate Jesus back at the Sea of Galilee, the main forum for his activities. But once we get over the clunkiness of the join, we are entirely in Jesus territory.
We allow ourselves to be struck once again, at the very opening, by a sense of this great crowd’s need and hunger – there is a real poverty here. Jesus moves among the poor and is moved by a great compassion for the poor: this compassion is something which turns his stomach, we might say, it originates in his very gut. Jesus notices people’s condition, and asks us to do the same. But noticing can never be enough – it must lead to an appropriate response.
Fr Raniero Cantalamessa – recently created a cardinal by Pope Francis – points out that the “preferential option for the poor” means that the poor do not need our good feelings, they need action: we must love them, assist them, evangelise them:
“Loving the poor means first of all respecting them and recognising their dignity. In them, precisely because they lack other incidental titles and distinctions, the radical dignity of being human shines out more brightly than ever…. This dignity of the poor must be respected above all in the Church, in our assemblies and institutions. There has to be a place in this world where they can truly feel at home, welcomed and not just tolerated.
“Loving the poor means asking their forgiveness. Forgiveness for failing to reach out to them fully and joyfully, and perpetuating the distance between us and them. Forgiveness for our passive indignation in the face of injustice…. Forgiveness for not recognising in them the living tabernacle of the poor and despised Christ. Forgiveness for not being one of them ourselves.
“We must not blame God for the misery in the world, but ourselves. What we need today is a new crusade, a mass mobilisation of all Christians, indeed of the whole civilised world to liberate these living tombs of Christ who are the millions upon millions of people dying of hunger, disease and want.
“Jesus multiplied the loaves and the Word together: in fact, he first administered the Word, sometimes for three days on end, and then worried about the loaves as well. The poor man does not live on bread alone but also on hope, and on every word that comes from God’s mouth. The poor have the inviolable right to hear the Gospel in its entirety, not a reduced, conveniently adapted edition.“Raniero Cantalamessa, Poverty
And it is precisely these poor, in their huge numbers, whom Jesus meets and receives with compassion, anticipating their hunger and providing in their need. In a very real sense we must ask ourselves if we are privileged enough to be in this great mass of humanity who come to Jesus, looking to him. The peculiar nature of this question requires reflection – should we be privileged to be among the poor? Yes, and always – because the poor are always in need of something, and can never live without that need until it is met. When all our needs appear to be met – whatever those needs might be – we cease to be poor, and then we cease in our need for Christ. It is a privilege for us to know that we have a poverty which can only be relieved by Christ’s presence and intervention. Our being rich and satisfied makes Christ dispensable in our lives.
Of course, there are two readily identifiable ways of being poor – material poverty and spiritual poverty. In both cases we may either choose the state of poverty or have it thrust upon us. But whatever it is – and poverty is relatively defined according to the circumstances in which it occurs and in which it is experienced – poverty’s characteristic mark is needing that which is essential to my life and which I lack. If I can identify either the presence of that poverty in my life, or know that I am called to embrace it, then I have the possibility of being in this great crowd which stands before Christ, on that day, hungry and waiting.
At a second level, what is my response to poverty when it reveals itself around me in my life? This, now, is the poverty which others experience, but which should be evident to me and which questions me. Somewhat in keeping with the approaching season, Charles Dickens made the point when, in A Christmas Carol, Ebeneezer Scrooge was visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present. At the end of their time together the spirit brought forward two miserable children from beneath his great green mantle, and they shake Scrooge tremendously. They shake him because he has watched them all his life, and made excuses for ignoring them:
`Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,’ said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe,’ but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw.’
`It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,’ was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. `Look here.’
From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.
`Oh, Man. look here. Look, look, down here.’ exclaimed the Ghost.
They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
`Spirit. are they yours.’ Scrooge could say no more.
`They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. `And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it.’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. `Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.’
`Have they no refuge or resource.’ cried Scrooge.
`Are there no prisons.’ said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. `Are there no workhouses.’ The bell struck twelve.Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
Dickens was commenting on both the terrible reality of his own day – that ignorance and want were knit into the very fabric of the lives of the comfortable, but they for the most part kept them at arm’s length – and on the response of a great many: there are provision made for these people, and others look after them, such as they should. The prisons and workhouses covered over the vast problem of homelessness, debt and want, but, as with so many problematic circumstances, did little, or could do little, to address the roots of the problems. In much the same way it could be said that we salve our consciences by providing what we have spare and believe that we are alleviating the plight of those less fortunate than we are. But the root causes of such life sapping poverty are rarely effectively addressed, never mind healed. As one writer has noted recently:
“….common myths notwithstanding, remarkable steps have lifted billions out of poverty, both income poverty but more important through remarkable progress in expanding access to education and health. But … the fact that we have both the knowledge and the resources to end systemic poverty means that its persistence can truly be called a scandal.Katherine Marshall, The Scandal of Poverty in the Midst of Plenty
The crushing reality for so many today is that this material poverty also brings with it a poverty which robs of one’s very dignity, worth and health, mental, physical, emotional and spiritual. In this way, poverty runs down through the person and drenches all the fibre of their being – it drowns. This is a poverty which truly degrades and drives those who suffer under its weight to any length to gain some relief, or respect, or status.
The Jesus whom we know from the Gospels was not as poor as the people he met. From the few details we have of him we know that he was a carpenter by trade, and therefore a craftsman and artisan whose work would have been constantly in demand. Therefore, he was in a position to earn enough to live a decent life. We know that he enjoyed a certain social and religious status – he was a respected and gifted teacher, whose material needs when travelling were met by generous women and friends, who welcomed him and his disciples into their homes and invited him to dine with them. And as far as we know he enjoyed good health, which certainly allowed him to undertake fairly arduous tours of the territory in which he lived. No, Jesus was not poor, either in terms of material needs satisfied, or spiritual needs unfulfilled. But what sets him radically apart from those who were like him in his day – and from us, also – is that he was able to respond effectively to the poor who came to him. To anticipate, identify and satisfy a need to the extent that a person is made rich – that is to say, their poverty is removed from them as the defining characteristic of who they are – is to restore not just the person’s status, but the person themselves.
What, then, is poverty to me? Who are the poor for me? How is my life changed by their presence, and changing to respond to their need?
The focus on this account of the feeding of the multitude centers on both the loaves which are the substance of the meal, and the basketfuls which are gathered together at the end when the meal is finished. Where previously Mark had noted five loaves and twelve basketfuls, undoubtedly indicating a type of new Israel being brought into being, a new twelve tribes of a covenanted people gathered around Christ rather than Moses, we are confronted with equivalence here – seven loaves and seven basketfuls of scraps. In our lectio we are left with the feeling that we are back in the days of creation, a new beginning in an even more radical sense is taking place here!
We are rightly used to associating this glance at the Book of Genesis with the Prologue (and more) of the Gospel of John, and rightly so. John wants us to make a very direct connection between the Genesis creation and the new creation which takes place through the Word becoming flesh: Christ is the one who will make all things new, and brings this new creation to the Father. But the note of newness cannot be overlooked here in Mark. This is vitally important: Mark’s Gospel will come to a sudden and surprising end, with the crucified Jesus laid to rest in the tomb. The resurrection account and proclamation are later additions, rounding the Gospel account out in the same way that the others are. But perhaps Mark has done all the necessary work before the Passion and death account, and indeed he will plunge us into this very shortly with the first of the Passion prophecies – and after all, Mark’s Gospel is frequently referred to as a Passion account with an introduction!
So, all that goes before the account of the Passion and death must achieve Mark’s purpose – the good news about Jesus Christ and his proclamation of the present and to-come Kingdom of God. The nature of that Kingdom, in all it’s messianic newness, is, in a very clear sense, expressed by the three great meals which Jesus provides: the first and second accounts of the feeding of the multitudes, and the culmination of the feeding of those in need in the institution of the Eucharist (Mark 14:12-31). The old covenant people of God find their completion in the people of the new covenant, and the creation achieved through the Word is renewed and drawn into the messianic establishment with this second miracle of loaves. The complete cycle of creation, which of course is a single act of God’s creative intervention but is charted over six days and a seventh of rest in Genesis, is now revealed complete in Christ – the seven loaves and the seven baskets, now of plenty, allow us to reflect that this new creation leads to a new Sabbath, a new rest, because the Son of the Father is truly present, redeeming and saving. The messianic banquet, illustrated in two moments of covenanted people and new creation, will find its great fulfilment in the great Sabbath Eucharistic banquet – which embraces the complete mystery of Christ – in which the new people of God witness the new covenant in Jesus’ blood, which will be completely revealed on the cross.
At this point it may be helpful once again to return to the opening chapters of Genesis and reread the creation myth which the sacred authors give us. This is the creation before the Fall. The new creation which takes place in Christ does not restore what had been – rather, something entirely new takes place. The symbolism has, to a certain extent, already been given to us: it is not a resuscitation, as in the story of Jairus’s daughter, but a rising to new life.
Entering into this second banquet moment invites the awareness that I am entering into the creative and redemptive action of God, through the Spirit, in Christ. The Father invites me to a new creation, which he makes possible in me through grace, the presence of the Spirit already given me in baptism. This is, of course, the doctrine of justification which we have already investigated and which St Paul presents to us in his letter to the Romans. It is a new creation which is inseparable from the Passion and death of Christ, and which is established, once and for all, in the definitive messianic banquet of Christ’s Body and Blood. To approach Christ, truly poor in my life and aware now of the real need that I bring to him, is to be ready to participate in this banquet in which all things, including me, are made new. How can we refuse? And yet we do!
So, this lectio is filled with the invitation to a recognition of myself before Christ, in a humility which acknowledges my own poverty and which is ready to be satisfied with what he gives me. To become a member of his people, and to know that I am part of this new creation, is to drive me towards the Eucharistic summit.
-Part of our continuous lectio divina on the Gospel According to Mark-
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