It is said that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Certainly, earthly power can be the envy of the ambitious and the terror of the poor and humble. Power is so often associated with greed, violence and injustice. Few are those who wield political power solely to serve. It’s understandable why people can therefore want to avoid even using the word power, including in the Church. The history of the Church to our own day is littered with power abuse. Instead of using it to serve others selflessly like Christ, people have used it to serve themselves selfishly like the anti-Christ.
But does absolute power always corrupt absolutely?
In the Creed we say, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” Almighty means all-powerful. Here we have an absolute power which is not corrupt, but creative. Since to create is to love, God’s is a power which loves absolutely. For me to believe in God is for me to believe in love, absolute love.
Since the word power, then, is used of God in the Bible and throughout the tradition of the Church, it’s one that we should keep. But we must redeem it from the distortions it has suffered as the result of sinfulness. Nor must we let the misuse of political power cloud our understanding of the power of God. If men of the Church abuse God’s power as if it were political power, then they must be called out for doing so. But in calling out the abuse of power, let us not make the mistake of dispensing with the true use of it. To dispense with God’s power is to dispense with God and his love and, more than likely, to claim the power for ourselves.
God the Father gave his absolute power to Jesus. Jesus showed it above all by laying down his life for us and taking it up again. No greater love can there be than to lay down your life for your friends. So, Jesus, too, like the Father-Creator uses his power only to love. Since his death destroyed our death, then Jesus used his power to re-create us. The almighty Father creates, the almighty Son recreates. The almighty Spirit will sanctify and glorify us.
On the five Sundays of this month of August, we will hear from St. Matthew various ways in which Jesus used his power for our lasting good. During the first three Sundays, he shows the love of his heart for us by using his power over creation. On the last two Sundays, he shares his power with his Church and makes it clear how that power must be used in love, in service and in suffering.
Today, we hear the beautiful Gospel of the feeding of the five thousand. We say “five” thousand, but that number only refers to the men who were there, and does not include the women and children. So, we could easily be talking about anything from fifteen to twenty-five thousand. That would have taken a lot of baking and a lot of fishing!
But before recounting the miracle itself, Matthew sets the scene for us. Jesus has just learnt that someone whom he greatly admired and loved has been cruelly murdered, John the Baptist. He would have been greatly upset by this news. He knew that his own mission was related to John’s mission. He knew that John would probably be murdered, but he also knew that John’s death would be the sign that his own mission would now be on its home stretch. So, Jesus had a lot on his mind and heart. That’s probably why he told the disciples that he needed to get away somewhere quiet where he could process and pray things through.
But the people would not know that. They clearly loved him and needed to hear his teaching and receive his healing. So, they go after him. When Jesus sees the large crowd, his reaction is not one of annoyance. Instead, says the Gospel, he was “moved with compassion” for them and healed their sick. That phrase, “moved with compassion” is very important. It appears earlier in the Bible and is used of God’s reaction to the pitiful state of his people. It literally means that God is “moved as to his bowels or guts” and so takes strong and saving steps to comfort and console his people. So, Matthew is not simply saying that Jesus felt sorry for the large crowd. He is saying that Jesus is moved now as the Father was moved in the Old Testament to come to the aid of those seeking him. He is saying that Jesus is God.
And here is the first sign of the power of Jesus. Before being the miracle of the loaves and fishes, you could say it is the display of his divine and human compassion for this huge crowd of people. He puts aside his grief about the Baptist and his concerns about his own future to pour himself out in merciful love and compassion and in healing for the crowd.
At some point, Jesus must have looked out at this great gathering of people, all looking to him for help and direction, and perceived it as a very early sign of the waves of humanity that would be coming to him across the centuries. Perhaps he even perceived them as a sign of the whole of redeemed humanity that would come before him in the Kingdom of heaven. We know that Jesus liked to use the image of the banquet to describe humanity at one with God. We also know that on earth the true foretaste of the heavenly banquet would be the Eucharist. So, what he now does is prepare the way for the Last Supper and its future form in the Mass by performing the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
So, Jesus sets about using his power over nature to make it serve the immediate physical hunger of the crowd. He had provided a feast of compassion for their hungry hearts and a feast of healing for their sick bodies. Now, in a staggering exercise of his power of love over nature for man’s sake, the feast of bread and fish will show that his compassion is more than feeling or talk, but very real.
St. Matthew tells the story of the miracle in a way that is very clever, because he uses words which he will repeat in his account of the Last Supper. This is to make us connect the miracle of the loaves and fishes with the far greater miracle of the bread and wine. Matthew tells us that the miracle takes place in the evening: so does the Last Supper. The bread is brought to Jesus, as it is at the Last Supper. The people are told to recline on the grass, like the apostles on their couches around the table at the Last Supper. Jesus takes the bread, raises his eyes to heaven, says the blessing, breaks the bread and gives it to his disciples to hand out. He performs every one of these same actions at the Last Supper. The twelve baskets refer to the twelve apostles at the Last Supper and even to the twelve tribes of Israel, a symbol of the total number of the redeemed. Even if 25,000 people were fed the meal of loaves and fishes, who can count the number who have received the Eucharist?
It will also be in the evening of human history, that Jesus, in the supreme exercise of his power, will call the redeemed to recline on the verdant pastures where he will give us eternal repose. As Jesus says in St. Luke’s Gospel, he will serve those who have been ready for his return. In Matthew he also says he will drink the new wine with his disciples in the Kingdom of God.
Sisters and brothers, as then so now Jesus continues to ve moved in the depths of his being for all of us. He is not far away for in him we live and move and exist. He is not disinterested in our concerns or needs, however small or great they may seem. He knows that, until he returns in glory, or until we die, we are lost, hungry and afflicted without him. That is why the large crowd of his disciples to which we belong, the Church, is such a blessing. In it he continues to feed us with the bread and the chalice of eternal life. The Mass is the permanent manifestation of his almighty power of love. As we walk through the deserted places of this life, it is at Mass that we recline on the green pastures of his Word and share in the banquet he has prepared for us in the sight of our foes. There will never be any shortage of the Eucharist for those who come to receive it with sincerity of heart. Indeed, there will always be more than twelve baskets left over. There is nowhere Jesus would rather be, nothing he would rather do, no exercise of power he would rather make than to love us, to teach us and to feed us with himself in the sacrifice and supper of the Holy Mass.
You have known during these recent months what it means to hunger for the Eucharist. It is such hunger for him that moves deeply the divine and human heart of Christ to display the power of his love. I think it is St. Augustine who says somewhere that the more we receive Christ, the more we hunger for him. So, may our hunger for him increase more and more until we experience his omnipotent love face to face in the banquet of eternity.