Then, taking the five loaves and two fish, and looking up to heaven, Jesus said the blessing over them, broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. Luke 9, 11-17
The more I dig into Luke’s Gospel, the more I come to appreciate how carefully it has been constructed. In the account of the birth of Jesus and the events surrounding it, Luke tells us three times, in the space of 12 verses, how Mary’s new-born baby was “wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger” (Luke 2, 6-17). A manger is a feed bin for cattle, sheep and goats, and the word is very closely related to the French verb manger and the Italian mangiare, both meaning to eat, feed or chew. So, Luke uses the symbol of the feeding bin in which the new-born Jesus was laid to point to how Jesus would eventually become food, the “bread of life” for the whole of humanity.
This Sunday’s readings are effectively the Church’s invitation to us to reflect on the meaning of the Eucharist for us and the way in which we integrate it into our daily lives. Whenever I reflect on Eucharist, I find myself dwelling on the words St Augustine believed were appropriate for people to hear when they came to the altar to receive communion: “Behold who you are, become what you receive!” It was Augustine’s view that, if we really grasped the meaning of that very profound statement, the way we live our lives would be transformed immeasurably.
“Behold who you are…” - “Look, you are the body of Christ! Do you really appreciate who you are? You are the Christ for everyone you will meet today, and until you come back to the altar to be reminded once again just who you are meant to be”.
“…become what you receive!” - “Become nourishment for everyone with whom you interact when you walk out of the church today! Be bread, broken and given to nourish the lives of those you will encounter today and into the future. Give selflessly of yourself and of your time and energy. Breathe life and hope into others, into your family members, your friends, your work colleagues and the strangers you meet.”
In his Second Letter to the Christian community in Corinth, Paul challenged his audience to test the genuineness of their Christianity by answering a very simple question. “Do you recognise yourselves as people in whom Jesus Christ is present? If you don’t, you have failed the test.” (2 Corinthians 13, 5) Augustine went a step further and urged his community to come to the realisation that they were Jesus Christ to everyone they met. The manner in which they engaged with the people around them would demonstrate that. The Eucharist they received would have its full impact as they encouraged, affirmed and loved into life all those around them.
In our neighbourhood, Vincentian chapel here in Rome, the priest finishes Mass each morning with the words: “Go and glorify God in your lives.” If we take him seriously, we will spend the remainder of our day in our own very ordinary efforts to nourish those around us by the way we relate to them, by the way in which we greet them and acknowledge their presence, by the ways in which we express appreciation to them.
And, if we are alert, we will see others around us doing the same, and find encouragement from how they do it. Moreover, if we look beyond our own narrow boundaries, we will find inspiration in abundance.
The New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof found it in a quietly-spoken priest and a religious sister in South Sudan. Kristof wrote in May 2010: “I met Father Michael in the remote village of Nyamlell, 150 miles from any paved road here in southern Sudan. He runs four schools for children who would otherwise go without an education, and his graduates score at the top of state-wide examinations… Father Michael came to southern Sudan in 1978 and chatters fluently in Dinka and other local languages. To keep his schools alive, he persevered through civil war, imprisonment and beatings, and a smorgasbord of disease. ‘It’s very normal to have malaria,’ he said. ‘Intestinal parasites — that’s just normal’. Father Michael may be the worst-dressed priest I’ve ever seen — and the noblest…He would make a great pope.”
Kristof continued: “In the city of Juba, I met Cathy Arata, a nun from New Jersey who spent years working with battered women in Appalachia. Then she moved to El Salvador during the brutal civil war there, putting her life on the line to protect peasants. Two years ago, she came here on behalf of a terrific Catholic project called Solidarity with Southern Sudan… Sister Cathy and the others in the project have trained 600 schoolteachers. They are fighting hunger not with handouts but with help for villagers to improve agricultural techniques. They are also establishing a school for health workers, with a special focus on midwifery to reduce deaths in childbirth.”
But we don’t have to go across the world to see people breaking the bread of their lives and giving it to others, to those with whom they live and work and to those who are homeless, lonely or needy in all kinds of ways. For decades, two wonderful Good Samaritan Sisters, Mary and Marie have been giving of themselves to people in their neighbourhood in Balmain, Sydney, who have struggled as single parents, who have carried the burden of mental health issues or who have been unable to negotiate the bureaucratic maze of a complicated Social Security “service”. These two extraordinary women have kept their door open to all comers, at all hours of the day and night. Their lives have been an endless succession of days when they have been bread broken, and have given selflessly to people broken by the circumstances of their lives.
As we approach the table of the altar in our churches this coming Sunday, let’s imagine that we hear the Eucharistic minister saying to us, as he or she holds before us that small, consecrated particle that hardly resembles bread: “Behold who you are, become what you receive!” And let’s leave our churches to be and do that for everyone we encounter.