July 25; 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time; Year B

17th OT2 20 21The Feast of Plenty

Malaysia, the Land of Plenty, a food paradise renowned for a variety of cuisines and culinary delights, had never known hunger on a large scale (except during WWII perhaps). Rather than wondering when the next meal will arrive, Malaysians often struggle with the myriad of choices that can drive one mad. Malaysians generally eat not because they are hungry, but as painful as it is true, we eat because we are greedy.
But these months of lockdown, with so many losing their jobs and their only source of income, hunger has become a reality. White flags can be seen flying outside homes and poverty relief organisations across Malaysia have been overwhelmed these past few weeks as citizens cry out for food and other assistance, amid the country’s latest seemingly never-ending lockdown. As some commentators have noted, the white flag is not a sign of surrender but has become a powerful sign of human solidarity, as people from all walks of life rush to give assistance to alleviate the suffering of their neighbours and fellow Malaysians. This uncommon sign of solidarity has strangely caused alarm to the authorities, with some even viewing it as a subversive symbol of defiance against the administration. “How dare common Malaysians do the job of the government?” The answer is simple. The government machinery, for all its boasts, has miserably failed.

As our political leaders endlessly theorise as to how to deal with this crisis, ordinary Malaysians and entrepreneurs have rushed into action. This seems reminiscent of the conversation which takes place between our Lord and His apostles in today’s gospel. While the apostles continue to debate on the next course of action, our Lord moves into action. The readings turn our attention to the problem of hunger and how God provides for His people. This is especially moving when we read it in the background of the ravages of COVID. After having contended with the Coronavirus for over a year, we now have to face the more lethal “virus” of starvation.

It is interesting how the apostles sound so much like our inept political leaders. Let’s be honest. Despite our complaints and arm-chair pontification, none of us have found a fail-safe solution to our present predicament. Like the apostles, we may be constantly arguing over the scarcity of resources and practicality of our responses. But the gospel draws our attention to the Lord and begs us to imitate Him - He sees the crowds, He recognises their need, He looks at what is available, and then trustingly surrenders it to God before He shares it with the people. And the amazing thing is that when we are no longer cracking our heads and worrying about our limited resources, we would be able to share it willingly with others and God will bless our gift and multiply it with abundance. The truth is that everyone can do something, even though it may seem as insignificant as five loaves and two fish. But this is way better, than doing nothing.

But the readings point to a deeper truth. As much as starvation and hunger are realities which must be combatted at every level, the world’s hunger for food will only be satisfied when man learns to live not simply for himself, but for others, as Christ did. It will be satisfied only when the inner law of love, and not merely self-interest and greed, governs our individual and collective existence, inspires our policies and regulates our social structures and institutions. The world’s hunger for food will only be satisfied when man learns to hunger for God.

And this is why we partake in the Feast of Plenty, the Eucharist, a taste of the heavenly wedding banquet. We partake in the Eucharist because we are hungry. Ours is an elemental hungering. We want sustenance. We crave nourishment beyond food and drink that sustain our physical lives. We hunger for life to be spiritually meaningful and for it to be redeemed from the evil and viciousness that all too often mar it. Our hunger is the human appetite to be in communion with one another. Like the thirst of which the psalmist spoke so long ago, it is also our inescapable longing for God.

The Eucharist is not a symbolic meal of intellectual concepts. It is real food and real drink, ordinary food made from wheat and grapes that we lift up to God, returns to us as the extraordinary sacrament of Christ. This is why the online Mass, though providing us with help for our prayer and spiritual lives, will never be an adequate substitute for the real thing. You cannot satisfy your hunger by reading a cook book or by watching Jamie Oliver on television. The Eucharist is not just to be admired from a distance, but to be consumed before it can release its greater power in us. In Holy Communion, our Lord unites Himself with us and we unite ourselves with others through our union with Him. It is made possible by Jesus’ act of complete surrender to the will of the Father, whereby He offers up His life, His love, and finally His body and blood on the Cross. With five loaves and two fish, our Lord feeds the crowd and satisfies their physical hunger. But with His body and blood, He feeds and saves the world!

The popular spiritual author Henri Nouwen wrote about this: “The great mystery of the Eucharist is that God’s love is offered to us not in the abstract, but in a very concrete way; not as a theory, but as food for our daily life. The Eucharist opens the way for us to make God’s love our own... Whenever you receive the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist, His love is given to you, the same love that He showed on the cross.” Just as food is consumed not just once but daily, we must continually go to Mass and receive the Eucharist. It is something that gives daily nourishment and fulfilment.

Someone once suggested that in the post-COVID age of social distancing and online services, the Eucharist and Holy Communion have ceased to be relevant. But the truth is that the Eucharist will always remain relevant, it will always remain necessary as food for the journey, antidote to death, and sustenance for the soul. To paraphrase the reply of the martyrs of Abitene to the magistrate as they faced the sentence of death for attending Mass, a prohibited activity under Roman rule: “We cannot omit the celebration of the Divine Mysteries. The Christian cannot live without the Eucharist and the Eucharist without the Christian. Don’t you know that the Christian exists for the Eucharist and the Eucharist for the Christian? … The Eucharist is the hope and the salvation of Christians.”

Likewise, Christ’s miracle of the multiplication of loaves continues to have contemporary relevance. This world needs SHARING. But more importantly, this world needs SAVING. Let us not forget that it is only when, in faith and love, we give away the little that we have—a few loaves and fishes—that God blesses our poor efforts and, in His omnipotence, multiplies them to meet the hunger of the world. It is also through our little efforts of sharing our faith, that we can offer Christ’s gift of salvation to the world.