The next few Sunday Masses, we shall have the company of John for our Gospel. This Sunday, we kick it off with a miracle stunning in scale and stupendous in scope. John’s Gospel does not have what we traditionally call the Institution Narrative. Instead, its place is taken by the Washing of Feet ritualised annually in our Maundy Thursday liturgy. What we would consider in John to be Eucharistic in motif is supplied through chapter 6 of his Gospel. All 4 Gospels record the miracle of the loaves and fish but only John sets his in the context of the Passover. Thus, the link to the Institution Narrative of the other 3 Gospels may be gleaned through the actions of Jesus who took bread and gave thanks before distributing it to those sitting down. The vocabulary is strongly evocative of the Last Supper.
What lessons may we draw from this feeding feast? Firstly, we are given a definitive figure of 5000 men which can also mean, depending on how you estimate the average size of a family, between 10 and 20 thousand who were satiated if women and children were included. This was a miracle of God’s generosity. Hence, the first lesson is we are invited to trust Him. Secondly, the 12 basketful remaining not only attest to God’s abundant generosity but they also challenge us to become more aware of the reality of physical hunger. The continued presence of hunger in the world is not an indictment against God’s providence but rather a conviction of our selfishness. The second lesson is we are asked to be as generous as God is.
Thirdly, and this is the lesson which I want to highlight today. The exact figure 5000 opens up another horizon for a reflexion of grave importance for the future of Christianity and also of humanity.
In a lunch meeting between the Pope and some cardinals, he used a description for the Church on earth, which admittedly sounded out of fashion. The Church on earth is aptly called “Ecclesia militans” meaning Church militant. In times Roman, here I mean not the word processor typeface or font, a legion consisted of, give or take, 5000 fighting men. Today, Jesus feeding 5000 men merits a second look at what this figure of 5000 really stands for each one of us.
First of all, it is an uncomfortable comparison to think the 5000 men Jesus fed could be considered a Roman legion. Jesus Himself was uneasy with the idea. He escaped into the hills because they wanted Him to be a leader of an earthly kind. Why a disquiet with a martial imagery of Christ? Since humanity has witnessed two great wars in the last century, and countless genocide in between and after, the latest being the civil unrest in Syria, a pertinent question to ask is if humanity needs to have such an aggressive reminder? After all, the face of militancy is also worn, amongst others, by suicide bombers and so, a term like Church militant, is suggestive of a Catholic crusade or a Catholic wing of the Hezbollah. I would think that many of us would have preferred a more peaceful, and in an era more tolerant, a less belligerent term to describe the Church. In the face of massive institutional failure, of governments, not only here but in many countries, of financial bodies like the UK banks fixing the Libor rates, should we not democratise the institution of the Church and thus prevent or pre-empt any hierarchical abuse of power? There is a movement called “We are Church” which advocates a democratic and a more egalitarian form of Church by dissolving the distinction between hierarchy and laity. Such a scheme is surely seductive as it suggests of common ownership and thus equal responsibility for the management of Church.
The Pope would think otherwise. An attempt to humanise the Church, to level the ground and to make it mirror more our social set up can only impair its divine mission. We are “Ecclesia militans”1 not because we are strident, not because we want to fight but because we are engaged in the crucial struggles of our times. Evil, and by evil, I do not mean Hollywood’s grotesque portrayal with great cinematic effect. Instead, the evil that wishes to dominate the world, in its many forms, is subtly masked as goodness, beauty and truth. Caught unawares Christians will be tossed in the swirling pool of relativism where choice itself becomes the good, where novelty usurps beauty and where subjective experience displaces truth. The authentic exercise of freedom is specifically directed towards the search for what is good, beautiful and true; which is none other than the human search for Jesus Christ, who is Truth, Beauty and Goodness incarnate.2 It is a demanding exercise which is humanly impossible and therefore in need of divine help.
Christ by His life, death and resurrection has prevailed against the Evil one. He may have won for us eternal life but still, we need to choose. Thus, the exercise of freedom means that battle for the heart and soul of humanity continues. Today that battle rages under the dictatorship of relativism, a tyranny which does not recognise anything as definitive except one’s ego and one’s desires. The future of Christianity is dependent on Christian soldiers continuing the mission of their Lord and Master in drawing humanity to Himself. It is in this endeavour that the miracle today becomes relevant as it challenges whatever philosophy of life we cling to. The term ecclesia militans does not make sense if one’s philosophy were “I live to eat”. Our society has enough disposable income to easily slip into this kind of philosophy of life. But, if your philosophy were “I eat to live”, then the term makes sense. Why? We need food and therefore strength for the good fight.
It is in relation to this good fight, so aptly described by St Paul, that the familiar word sacrament may be applied to John’s Gospel. Why? The explanation lies in the event which we call the Incarnation because the Incarnation is the sacrament par excellence. As such, the Eucharist was called the “medicine of immortality” by St Ignatius of Antioch. Why? Note that in chapter 6 of the Gospel, the people who had eaten the manna in the desert died. The same fate would meet the 5000 who ate the very bread that Jesus multiplied. It is only at Mass, the Eucharist which is not only a token but is indeed made possible by the Incarnation, that we can eat the Bread of Eternal Life to draw the supernatural strength needed so that we, as soldiers of Christ, as Ecclesia militans, may continue the good fight in order that we may merit a life that is eternal.
1 For the Pope, the Church is a communion (koinonia) founded on the Eucharist which is at once vertical with God in Christ and horizontal, amongst believers themselves. The Church’s “permanent structure is not democratic, but sacramental, consequently hierarchical” since each particular Church is presided over by a Bishop who maintains its unity with the Bishop of Rome and thus with the universal Church.
2 In the Catholic tradition, beauty is a metaphysical and ultimately theological notion. The search of beauty has nothing to do with mere aesthetic sensibility or a flight from reason, because, from the divine perspective, beauty, together with truth and goodness, is a manifestation of being. God, the origin and sustainer of all being is truth, beauty and goodness itself. In the language of metaphysics, truth, beauty and goodness are the “transcendentals.” In other words, to the degree that any reality participates in being and ultimately in the being of God, that reality is true, beautiful and good.