Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Let us Hunger for the Lord

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

Few Malaysians truly understand the meaning of hunger. In fact, our main dilemma is often the difficulty of choosing between endless options: What shall we eat? What shall we drink? So much of our time and attention is wrapped up in answering those questions. Hunger pangs often do not last for too long as they are soon sated by a kind of binging that would make the Romans, infamous for their orgiastic banquets, blush with shame. But there is more than just a physical hunger. A type of hunger that is often masked by our need to binge. Hunger in itself is a sign – it points to the incompleteness, the neediness of man. To be human is to be hungry, to be needy, to be caught up in a constant search for something more. In fact, the more we realise just how limited we are, the more we see how our whole existence points to something beyond ourselves.

God knows both the physical hunger of the body and the spiritual hunger of the soul. In the story of creation, God created man with this constant need for sustenance. He created man hungry, but he also created the world of which man can partake in order to live. But man’s sustenance is not limited merely to the material or physical. It must ultimately find its deepest and most profound satisfaction in the spiritual – communion with God. Yes, man is a hungry being. But there is a greater hunger that needs to be satisfied than the physical hunger of man. It is the hunger for God. Behind all the hunger of our life is God. All desire is finally a desire for Him. In the Eucharist, in the gift of Jesus Christ Himself, the Bread of life, we see both material and the spiritual hunger finding the satisfaction.  As God provided manna to the Israelites crossing the wilderness, so God, provides Jesus, the Bread of Life, to sustain us.

Today’s gospel is part of the lengthy Bread of Life Discourse that we will get to hear every Sunday for the next few weeks. Last week, we witness the miraculous feeding of the multitudes through the multiplication of the five barley loaves and two fish. Today’s discourse seeks to explain both the messianic and Eucharistic significance of that miracle. The crowds who pursued Jesus around the length of the lake had followed after him, not because they were disciples who believed, that is they possessed the perception of faith, but because they had been taken with the material and sensational nature of the sign. With an insatiable hunger, they pursued him – eager to see power and majesty made manifest. Perhaps, another “free meal.” In answer to their ambitious desires and hunger, he offered only the gift of himself: his teaching and his life.

To those who hoped for a repeat performance of the manna, Jesus spoke of non-perishable food that “endures to eternal life.” The manna in the desert melted in the heat of the day but the food of the Son of Man, the bread the Father gives would never cease to fill them with blessings. Having fed them with the multiplication of the loaves, Jesus now turns to challenging them to raise their attention from their stomachs to their hearts. He would have them spiritually hungry, thereby open to the truth of his teaching. This is the hunger that moves men toward God. This is the hunger that only God through Christ can fill.

Do we come with such a hunger for the Word of God and the Bread of Life at every mass? Do we hunger for life, real life, abundant life, eternal life? Do we have a hunger so weakening that it drives us to our knees in prayer and submission? Or have we already feasted on other things to the extent that we have lost our appetite? Perhaps it has been a while since you knew this kind of hunger. Few seem to suffer from intensity of hunger and thirst for God and that is a great tragedy. They have forgotten that hunger is part of God's merciful provision, a divinely sent stimulus to propel us in the direction of food and sustenance. It is nature's last drastic effort to rouse the imperiled life to seek to nourishment. A dead body feels no hunger. The dead heart cannot aspire nor desire.

We can lose our taste for the eternal when we develop a taste for the things of this world. One of the clear indicators that something is wrong physically is when we lose our appetite. Hunger is both a sign of health as well as a sign of vitality. It is the same spiritually. To hunger and thirst for God is at the very root of our being. When there is no hunger for the presence of God, it is an indicator that something is wrong spiritually. Because that hunger is so basic to human nature, it often finds fulfillment in other areas rather than in seeking God. Many attempt to fill the gnawing emptiness of their hearts and mask the pangs of hunger through all sorts of false substitutes. Much as eating unhealthy junk food can dull physical appetite, so that which is not of God can dull our spiritual appetite. So many today snack their way through the day on “junk-food”, material things, busy-ness, alcohol, pornography, sexual immorality, and then find they have no time to “feast” with God. As much as we consume all these “junk food,” we continue to end up hungry, hungering for more.

The Eucharist is the food which satisfies man's deepest hunger and profoundest longings. God feeds us with Himself. Created in the image and likeness of God himself, man can find the final appeasement of his hunger and fulfilment of his desires in God alone. We have the testimony of St Augustine who hungered for knowledge and love in all the wrong places and finally found the answer in God, “Our heart is not quiet until it rests in Thee.” The Eucharist, the Bread of Life, the true Manna from Heaven, the Bread of Angels, the Elixir of Immortality, is that most nourishing food that promises not just a healthy spiritual life but eternal life, the antidote to death.

How then can we nurture this holy hunger for God, for His Christ, for the Bread of Life? It is no accident that one of the great spiritual disciplines of the Church is to fast. The Church requires us to observe the Eucharistic fast one hour before communion. When we fast, we become acutely aware of our physical hunger. That physical hunger can lead to a spiritual hunger as well and this awakens us to a greater need for God. It may be that we will need to fast from other things than food in order to restore our spiritual hunger. There may need to be a slowing of our hectic lifestyles that are crowding out our time with God. We may need to fast from some forms of entertainment to devote time to seeking the Lord. Those heavily involved in ministry may need to say “no” to that which is good, in order to seek that which is best. Let us not wait till Lent or Good Friday, before we even begin our fasting.

Let us never ignore or cease to be driven for this hunger for God. The more we give ourselves to God in our human hunger, the more he gives us the Food that makes us divine.  We must allow this divine food to define and renew us, be the measure of our very being, the source and purpose of our lives. I recall the story of a Catholic Chinese bishop who was 21 years in prison—fifteen of them in solitary confinement. .One day, five years into solitary, the officials came and said, “Hey, we’re going to give you a break today. For two hours you can do anything you want. Do you want some nice food? Do you want to go for a walk in the prison yard?” The bishop said, “Give me some bread and wine.” He celebrated the Mass. And after it was finished, he went back into solitary. He had lost his taste for the world and all its false pleasures. His only hunger was for the Lord. Let that be our hunger too.

Thursday, July 23, 2015









Wednesday, July 22, 2015

In Him we shall never despair

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

Having overseen events where we had to cater for thousands, making sure that no one went home hungry, I can see how the possibility of feeding five thousand in today’s gospel reading would be any caterer’s nightmare. Thankfully, we Asians are in the habit of always cooking and serving up more. Yet, it’s hard to comprehend how Jesus and his disciples could resolve the issue of feeding five thousand on a meagre meal of five barley loaves and two fish. It would be a Herculean task by any measure. No wonder the Apostle Philip exclaimed, “five barley loaves and two fish, but what is that between so many?” How do you match the immensity that is experienced with the insufficiency that is expressed? But we need to remember that in the economy of the Kingdom, these things cannot be reduced to a formula of figures.

The juxtaposition of a situation of cosmic proportions with that of meagre, insignificant even miniscule resources is deliberate. It not only heightens the narrative, but also sets the stage for what is going to be revealed. All four gospels relate the episode of the feeding of the multitudes by Jesus, but only the fourth evangelist called it a sign (Greek, semeion). Each sign should be understood as a vehicle of revelation and a personal encounter with Jesus as Lord. In each sign, a challenge is issued; those who witness the sign are summoned to go beyond the sign and to believe in the One whom the sigh has revealed. Today’s gospel, the real focus of the miracle is not the five loaves or the two fish, nor  is it the multitude who is fed, but Jesus Himself, Jesus who is both the Bread and the Bread-Giver of Life of the World. The story certainly points to more than an ordinary miracle involving multiplication of food. It ultimately points to the Eucharist, which in turns point to the messianic banquet in heaven.

The enormous dilemma awaiting a solution all speaks to us about immensity, about abundance: not the kind of abundance that comes from careful gathering and accounting; but the abundance of God's providence. ‘Looking up, Jesus saw the crowd...’ (v 5). It seems St John the Evangelist wants us too to lift up our eyes, he wishes to draw our attention to view things not only as they are but what they could be. We are given a glimpse of the heavenly banquet. Just as the disciples and the crowds were invited not to live their earthly lives by addition and subtraction, we too are invited and challenged to live our lives according to the economy of heaven. As Jesus lifted up his eyes to look at the crowds, we the audience are invited to lift our eyes to look at Him and to see what is happening.

Of course, our attention goes immediately to the impossibility of the situation. We see the five thousand and we see the five loaves and two fish. “What is that between so many?” Contrasted with the immensity of everything in that scene is the poverty of resources. The figures just don’t match. You can smell the despair that hangs in the air and perhaps be drawn to it (if not for our familiarity with the gospel story and its conclusion). It wouldn’t take long for even the most optimistic person to conclude that it simply couldn’t be done. Despair sets in whenever we are unable to see beyond the problem.

Four sorts of despair often affect us as they would have affected the disciples.  Each one blinds us to the reality that Christ is present, He is control, and nothing is impossible for Him. 

First, they despaired over what they didn’t have. Philip quickly sized up the crowd and said that it couldn’t be done financially. They just didn’t have the money to do what Jesus was suggesting. And even if they did, there weren’t enough stores and markets in tiny Bethsaida to buy the goods.

Second, they despaired over what they did have. All they had was the lunch that a little boy had brought, nothing more than the ancient equivalent to a “Happy Meal”.

Third, they even despaired over the humble nature of what little they had. It wasn’t just five loaves and two fish, but, as John tells us, it was five “barley” loaves and two “small” fish. Barley loaves were pretty poor things to offer to people and was usually reserved only as animal feed. And the word used to describe the fishes is one that refers to a tiny fish that you eat whole, in a single bite. It was a pauper’s meal.

And finally, they despaired over the enormity of the task. In a deserted place, at this late hour, how could they possibly find sufficient food for the massive crowd.

As a result, the disciples clearly didn’t want anything to do with this problem. And on a purely human level, who could have blamed them? The situation was humanly impossible.

When we face a challenge that is bigger than we have the resources to accomplish, and when we simply don't know what we are going to do, it’s time to lift our eyes from problem and fix our gaze on Jesus instead. Do not despair, for nothing is impossible for Jesus. It is here that we learn an important lesson – a lesson taught on another hill and in another gospel, the Gospel of St Matthew, the opening lines of the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes – “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

Miracles seem to happen in situations of scarcity rather than plenty. Why? Because where there is plenty there is no need of miracles! Where there is plenty you don't have to struggle, you don't have to come up against realities too painfully, you ease your way through everything with a cheque-book. It is the poor, the desperately helpless one, the one who has exhausted all options and used up all resources or had nothing to begin with, who will recognise the power and blessedness of God’s intervention.

At every mass, let us not miss the miracle that is taking place on the altar of sacrifice. Let our eyes, our thoughts, our visions not be fixed on whatever issue or problem that may be weighing us down. Rather, let us look up, beyond the multitude, beyond the measly five loaves and two fish, beyond the problem that weighs us down, to see the miracle of Jesus. Ordinary bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. Ordinary food that satisfies our hunger now becomes the elixir of immortality and the antidote to death. At every mass, the tiny host, so small that it seems lost in the cup of our hands, veils the Thrice Holy, Omnipotent, Almighty God who Created the Universe. Here is the Bread of Life. Here is the Son of God. Here is our Saviour, who deigns to feed us with his own flesh. Here is the foundation of our Hope, in Him we shall never despair!