We find Jesus in our Gospel today (Matthew 14:13-21) withdrawing after hearing that John the Baptist had been murdered. He would have been upset by John’s death – they had known each other from birth, probably grew up together and may have been related. This would have been a moment when Jesus began to realise, if he did not know it already, that he would suffer a similar fate.
John’s murder (Matthew 14:1-12) occurred during a banquet hosted by King Herod. Herod had begun living with his brother’s wife, Herodias, a relationship which the Baptist denounced and for which he was imprisoned. During the banquet Herod became besotted with the daughter of his new wife, Herodias, after she danced before him what’s subsequently become known as the Dance of the Seven Veils. When Herod then told this young woman that she could have anything she wanted – possibly in return for a ‘favour’ (I surmise), the young woman asked – at the behest of her mother – for the Baptist’s head on a dish which she duly received.
In his Gospel St Matthew immediately follows the account of this banquet with our reading today about another but different sort of ‘banquet’. This one features Jesus feeding a large crowd of hungry people in a “deserted place” near the shore of the Sea of Galilee (Mt 14:13-21).
The phrase “deserted place” was used by Matthew to remind the reader of the wilderness where Moses and the Israelites were fed miraculously with a food called manna. It was expected that the Messiah, when he came, would do something similar. Here Matthew, the Jew, takes the opportunity to teach his Jewish readers that Jesus is the new Moses who can satisfy people’s deepest hunger, as he did here in the desert.
Although the feeding of this large crowd was a very significant event – it is mentioned six times in all in the four Gospels – we have no way of knowing what really happened. We are not able to reconstruct the event because the language used to describe it is borrowed from the early Church’s celebration of the Eucharist. The verbs describing the actions of Jesus in feeding the people – ‘he took the loaves and the two fish … raised his eyes to heaven … said the blessing … breaking the loaves … handed them to his disciples …’ were and still are the actions we use at Mass for the consecration of the bread and wine.
So in the way Matthew records the event, he is teaching late first century Christians that whenever they celebrate the Eucharist, the same Lord who fed the five thousand is also nourishing them with food for eternal life, nourishment promised in the First Reading (Isaiah 55:1-3) that cannot be bought with money.
This event took place in a ‘deserted place’. Our churches in these past few months have become deserted, empty places. There’s just me and a step-ladder here this morning. The celebration of the Eucharist in public, which had gone on uninterrupted here for 90 years – even during the Second World War – has not been possible. Consequently, we have not been able to gather here as a community for Mass. And many of us have been confined to something akin to a lonely desert existence, isolated in our homes and denied the ordinary pleasures of freely meeting socially with anyone we choose.
Nevertheless, the ministry of Christ is not confined to church buildings. He comes to us in other ways, and not just in Holy Communion. While the Church has long taught that Christ is as present in his Word as in Holy Communion, we Catholics have traditionally seen Holy Communion as the more important way of receiving the Lord. But now, thanks to the live-streaming of Mass, many of us are hearing the Scriptures in a new way, in many cases every day. With no distractions, people are discovering anew in the Scriptures this equally important way in which Christ feeds God’s people. (Many of you have said this has been a ‘silver lining’ to the cloud of our locked churches.)
Nothing can replace our gathering in church, praying and singing together, receiving Holy Communion and socially interacting. But now we are discovering that the same Lord present in Holy Communion is feeding us in the comfort of our homes with his encouraging and supportive Word. Our homes have become ‘tabernacles’ where Christ is truly present in an intimate, newly discovered way.
Despite being upset at the death of John the Baptist and fearing for his safety, St Matthew tells us that Jesus felt such compassion for the people following him that he spent the day caring for them and their sick. He selflessly put aside his own concerns to care for others. During this pandemic, countless doctors, nurses, care home staff and others have been courageously and selflessly doing the same – putting their own lives at risk to go on caring for us. In their service we see another way in which Christ’s ministry of sustenance and healing is alive and active in our midst. May God protect them and keep them and their families safe from harm.
Holy Name, Jesmond
2 August 2020