About an hour ago, I started writing some notes that I hoped would be my Sunday homily. I was reflecting, of course, on the readings for Sunday, which you can find here. After awhile, I had way too much for a homily; but rather than delete it, I thought I'd just make it a blog post. Whether I draw on any of these ideas for my homily? Stay tuned...
When I read the Gospel (for Sunday), two things struck me.
First, our Lord said to his Apostles, “let’s get some rest.” At some times in my priesthood, I’ve really needed some rest; and hearing the Lord say it helps!
But, then notice what happens. Folks keep coming. And it says the Lord felt compassion for them. It’s not clear whether the Apostles got any rest!
What this Gospel doesn’t say—you’ll hear it next Sunday—is that this is when the Lord performed the miracle of multiplying the handful of loaves and fed at least 5,000 people.
Again, as you’ll hear next Sunday, part of what’s important about that miracle is how the Lord was interacting with the Apostles. Remember what he said to them? You give them something to eat. They came up with a few loaves and fish from a boy—and that is what the Lord multiplied.
And then, after the miracle—and to drive the point home—the Lord directs the Apostles to gather all the fragments. They gathered 12 baskets. Note that number: twelve baskets…twelve apostles.
So…I am going through all this to show what’s going on here. A lot of this is about the Apostles.
Remember, the Lord knew he would remain on earth only a short time. How would the work of gathering all nations into his Church proceed? Notice he didn’t write anything, that we know of. Instead, he poured his time into the Twelve.
There are a lot of lessons here about the priesthood.
A lot of folks think there’s nothing special about the priesthood, or at least, that’s how they talk. Sometimes it’s because they are reacting against those who went overboard about how special the priesthood is.
The priesthood is special.
If you talk to a theologian, s/he can explain our belief that when a man receives the sacrament of holy orders (as a deacon initially), that sacrament changes his very being. We call this the “ontological” change; this is why we say, “once a priest, always a priest”; and why we say that while a priest can be removed from ministry, nothing can “unordain” him.
Or you can talk about the things I often describe: how awesome are the things a priest gets to do. To absolve sins; to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass; to administer the sacraments; to visit folks in Christ’s name; to preach the Gospel.
Or, you can simply reflect—as I do many times—on the way folks approach a priest. Even non-Catholics, and Catholics who don’t practice their Faith, all show in their words and actions and demeanor: there is something special about the priesthood.
And you find it right here in this Gospel passage.
What’s special about the priest is that he is united, in a special way, to Christ.
Now, someone will say to me, but what about other people? Aren’t they united to Christ?
One of the things about our Christian Faith is that, at any given moment, as you reflect on it, you seem to be peering into the very heart of it; you’re tempted to say, “this is it! This is the key!” Then you realize: no, I’m only talking about just one part.
A few weeks ago, there was a video of a commencement talk that circulated on the Internet; in which an instructor said, bluntly, “you’re not special.” If you listened to the whole talk, he said something like, look, if everyone is special, then no one is.
He’s right—but then we come to the mystery of our Faith, in which it really is true that every part of it really is special, but in a way different from every other part.
It’s true that the priesthood is special; but then it’s also true that each and every one of us has a union with Christ that is as intimate and powerful as you can imagine.
Remember that the Church is the “Body of Christ”—and Saint Paul talked about how every part matters, but we aren’t all the same. Priests exist to carry out a unique part of the Lord’s mission. By the Lord’s decision—not mine!—a priest embodies Christ in a unique way.
I suppose hearing me say that could come across as pompous or self-regarding. And those are sins to which I’m prone.
But I will tell you, saying such things makes me aware of the peril I face on Judgment Day.
The other thing to remember is what makes the priest special: Jesus Christ!
The doors that open for me, the smiles, the kindnesses offered me, and the ears and hearts that receive my words…they aren’t opening for Martin Fox, rank-and-file member of the human race.
They are opening for a bearer of Christ. They’re opening for HIM.
When the crowds keep seeking out the Apostles, it was because they kept company with Jesus Christ.
That’s why the Lord was working so hard to get them ready; because after he returned to his heavenly throne, it was going to be the Apostles—and through their mission, the Church—that would make Christ present to people.
It’s tempting to move on right away to the Eucharist, because that is so central here—and I will soon enough—but it’s important not to miss the other parts of this.
Notice how important it was to Jesus that the Apostles spend time with him. One of the things we might miss in what the Gospels tell us is how much time Jesus spent with the Apostles. The words of Christ in the Gospel represent only a small share of all that was going on. The main thing was Jesus spending time with them.
So simple…yet so important. Priests must spend time with the Lord.
And then there’s the Eucharist.
It is so striking to me that our Lord gave each of them a basket of left over bread. Oh, I realize I can’t prove that each Apostle got one; but twelve baskets, twelve apostles.
And remember, they were the ones who were skeptical of feeding everyone.
Father Tom Grilliot, who lived and worked with me in Piqua, often makes this point that in the Gospel, the Apostles’ response so often was, “send them away”! When they brought children to be blessed…when they needed to get food…”send them away!” Yes, we priests will do that; I’m sitting down to eat, and the doorbell rings; I hatch a plan, on the way there, on how quickly I can “send them away”!
The other thing you might often notice in the Scriptures is how the Lord will make his point with lots of emphasis. So here, he not only shows the Apostles how the bread and fish are multiplied—they see it first; only later do the thousands of people figure out what happened. But also, he adds an exclamation point when he says, “now gather up all that’s left.” I can almost picture one of the Apostles—as they keep bending over to pick up the fragments—grumbling to themselves, “OK Lord, you made your point! Can we finally get that vacation we talked about?”
That’s why I think the detail of the twelve baskets is so important; it’s a message, first, to the Apostles, who gathered them. As important as feeding people is, the whole thing was primarily for them.
He knew they would remember this, and they did. The miracle of multiplying the loaves is described in all four Gospels. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, there are two instances of it. (Some argue they are the same, but the way they are presented leads me not to find that very persuasive.)
If you talk to a Scripture scholar, or read some of the commentary on these passages in the Gospels, they will point out the details in how the miracle was recounted, that show just how powerful an impact this miracle had.
One of the things you see—if you study the language of the Gospels—is how the writers of the Gospels connected this miracle to the Mass. They used language that ties it to the rituals of worship. And the same language shows up in the Eucharistic Prayers. I can do it from memory: “on the night before he died, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying…”
I think this: I think that some time later, the Apostles—whether at the time of the Last Supper, or the Crucifixion, or the Resurrection, or Pentecost, or whenever they first did what the Lord said to do with the Eucharist—“do this in memory of me”…
Somewhere, it crystallized for them. They remembered the miracle of the loaves and fish—and they had that same “click, click, click” experience in their heads.
It was one of the most important events in the life of the Church!
Because that’s when they realized what the Lord was teaching them that day.
Somewhere in there they figured out how important the Sacrifice of the Mass, and the Eucharist, would be for the Church.
That’s when the Church’s liturgy began to be born. We don’t know just how they celebrated the Eucharist in those early days, months and years; but we do know have reports from only decades later, in which it took on a form remarkably like what we know. The Roman Mass has had a largely unchanged form for most of the Church’s history; and the same is true of the sacred liturgy in the Eastern Churches.
There’s a mindset that will instinctively resist the suggestion that the Mass, as we know it, may well have been largely formed even in the time of the Apostles; and that is a suggestion that no one would dare make. But I will say this; no one has proved the opposite. The record is simply silent.
But the Church preserves a memory; the memory of the Apostles themselves. They were there when the Lord made sure everyone was fed; and he made sure the Apostles gathered the fragments. He knew when all the rest of the pieces were in place—including the Supper, the Cross, the Resurrection and the Holy Spirit—they would put it all together.
The Apostles were each given a basket.
One of the lessons I take from that is that priests should offer the Mass, they should adore the Eucharist, and they should encourage others to do so. Jesus gave them a basketful. On that afternoon, it was only a basket of bread; it wasn’t—yet—the Eucharist.
But it foreshadowed what the Apostles—and all priests—would be: bearers of the Eucharist. Christ gives each of us a basketful.
It reminds me of the miracle of the water turned to wine. There was an abundance. I often explain this to couples, preparing for marriage, that this sign serves to show how abundant the grace is that Christ will give them in the sacrament; but it’s not for them; it’s for them to share.
The same here.