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Father Vincent Hawkswell

God’s power works through natural events

Voices July 23, 2018

When Jesus fed the 5,000, he did not make food out of stones or out of nothing, writes Father Hawkswell. He made much food out of a little, just as his Father does. (Giovanni Lanfranco/Wikimedia Commons)

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B 
First Reading: 2 Kg 4:42-44 
Second Reading: Eph 4:1-6 
Gospel Reading: Jn 6:1-15

In the Gospel Reading this Sunday, Jesus feeds 5,000 people with five barley loaves and two fish. In this “multiplication,” the Church sees a foreshadowing of the Eucharist.

Why did Jesus perform this miracle? St. Athanasius explains. “Our Lord took a body like ours, and lived as a man, in order that those who had refused to recognize him in his superintendence and captaincy of the whole universe might come to recognize, from the works he did here below, in the body, that what dwelled in this body was the Word of God.”

Every year, when seeds sprout and fish spawn, God performs the same multiplication. This we take for granted, to the point where we can easily ignore God’s role completely. “It happens naturally,” we say, as if that accounts for everything. In reality, it is always God who feeds us, as the Psalm recognizes.

In this Sunday’s miracle, Jesus did not make food out of stones, as Satan had once suggested to him. Nor did he make it out of nothing. Rather, he made much food out of a little, just as his Father does. However, he did it locally and quickly, so that we might recognize in his work the power of God, at work through all space and time.

“The Son cannot do anything by himself – he can do only what he sees the Father doing,” Christ said of his miracles. “Whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.” After performing a miraculous cure, he said, “My Father is at work until now, and I am at work as well.”

Recognizing God’s power in natural events can help us recognize it in the sacraments. In them, by the power of God, Christ effects spiritual changes through physical things like water, oil, bread, words, and touch. For example, in baptism he cleanses us from sin through water. In the Eucharist, he changes bread and wine into his Body and Blood by the words of the priest.

A person who does not recognize God’s power cannot distinguish between bread and wine and Christ’s Body and Blood. Similarly, a person who knows nothing of love cannot distinguish between rape and spousal love, for both end in what is physically the same act. A person who knows nothing of justice cannot distinguish between revenge and just punishment, for both result in similar treatment of a criminal. A person who knows nothing of language cannot distinguish between animal noises and human noises.

In the movie The Miracle Worker, six-year-old Helen Keller, deaf and blind almost from birth, suddenly realizes that the “word” which Annie Sullivan is “spelling” into her hand actually means the water she can feel and taste. Here is a connection we all recognize: the connection between words and their meanings.

The sacramental connection between a physical sign (like bread or wine) and the corresponding spiritual reality is even closer. Accordingly, we do not say that consecrated bread and wine represent Christ’s Body and Blood; we say that what is on the altar after the consecration is his Body and Blood.

We cannot see the sacramental connection. Faced with spiritual realities, we are as blind as Helen Keller. Just as she had to rely on touch, so we have to rely on hearing: Christ said “This is my Body.” He was God, as his miracles proved, so it must be true.

In the Eucharist, the connection between the appearances of bread and wine and the Body and Blood of Christ is as difficult to apprehend as the connection between a word and its meaning. However, anyone who can talk knows how close that latter connection is: as close as that between soul and body or mind and brain.

Similarly, anyone who trusts Jesus can look at what seem to be bread and wine and recognize them for what they truly are: his own Body and Blood.