Like the crowds that followed Jesus, we are very often looking for a spectacle, a miracle, some kind of inexplicable, yet undeniably empirical and objective proof to substantiate what we believe. In his great novel, The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky observed,
To my thinking, miracles are never a stumbling block to the realist. It is not miracles that dispose realists to belief. The genuine realist, if he is an unbeliever, will always find strength and ability to disbelieve in the miraculous, and if he is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact he would rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the fact. Even if he admits it, he admits it as a fact of nature till then unrecognized by him. Faith does not, in the realist, spring from the miracle but the miracle from faithIn our first reading from 2 Kings, as well as in our Gospel today, we are dealing with accounts of miracles. Because we are dealing with accounts of miracles, we are not confronted "with a miracle as an irrefutable fact." But even if we by-pass this philosophical nuance and deal with both miracles as reported, that is, at face value, it is noteworthy that these are still not presented to us by Scripture as irrefutable facts. There are other explanations. In the case of today’s Gospel, one famous school of interpretation insists that all of the people, inspired by the example of the boy who, as Andrew pointed out, had "five barley loaves and two fish," simply shared what they had in like manner, meaning Jesus did not miraculously "multiply" anything. While I firmly believe that the abundance of food in both passages were the direct result of miracles, judging by much of our civil and political discourse these days, I don’t know which would be the greater miracle!
Where is this taking us? Well, we believe that the gifts of bread and wine that we will bring to the altar in a few minutes will actually be transformed, or, to use a more precise dogmatic term, transubstantiated, thus becoming for us the body and blood of Jesus Christ. This is truly a most gratuitous act on the part of the God, done by the power of the Holy Spirit, taking our humble gifts of bread and wine and, in return, giving His Son to us, body, blood, soul, and divinity. But the reality of this transubstantiation is not intuitively obvious to the casual observer. In other words, it is not presented to us, or to anyone, as an irrefutable fact, nor was it ever intended to, lest it simply become a kind of magic trick, a spectacle to behold, with little or no impact on how we live. Stated simply, faith is required in order to believe.
My dear friends in Christ, the only empirical evidence that the bread and wine become the Lord’s body and blood are the lives of those of us who partake of it. To state this perhaps a bit crudely, when we are dismissed at the end of Mass today, Christ will be "in us" just as truly as He is "in" the tabernacle, which is why we are usually sent forth with an exhortation, such as, "Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life," or, "Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord."
It is through our faithful and on-going participation in the sacraments, most particularly the Eucharist that our likeness to God, lost through sin is restored, and it is through us that God sets about restoring the world to His friendship. These realizations make it all the more important that we recognize we do this together, not each one of us on our own. We also need to recognize that the desired transformation most often happens gradually and not all at once, which enables us to see that the circumstances of our daily lives are the means we use, in cooperation with God, for our sanctification. While it may be true that simply going to Church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car, not going to Church, even if you consider yourself and are considered by others to be “a pretty good person,” doesn’t make you a Christian any more than never exercising makes you an Olympic athlete.
As C.S. Lewis noted in Mere Christianity, it is more accurate to say that a person who has faith in Jesus Christ and who goes to Church, but who still behaves badly, is a Christian, even if a "bad"” one, than it is to say that a person whose behavior is much better, but who does not have faith in Christ is more of a Christian. Evelyn Waugh, another famous English writer, perhaps best known for writing Brideshead Revisited, when rebuked by a friend for behavior awful in a self-proclaimed Christian, asked his friend to consider how much worse his behavior would be if he weren't a Christian.
This brings us to our reading from the Letter to the Ephesians, which gives us a startlingly practical and provocative "take away." In this passage, we, who belong to the communio sanctorum, along with the members of the Eucharistic community in ancient Ephesus, are urged "to live in a manner worthy of the call [we] have received" (Eph. 4:1). To live in such a worthy manner requires us to be humble, to be gentle with and forgiving of one another, bearing with each other, not despite our manifest weaknesses, but precisely because of them. It is by living in this manner that we "preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3 ). God’s purpose is expressed beautifully in one of our Eucharistic prayers: "Humbly we pray that, partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, we may be gathered into one by the Holy Spirit" (Eucharistic Prayer II).
Just as Jesus’ miraculous feeding of multitude in today’s Gospel led Him to depart for fear that they would carry Him off and make Him king in order that He would continue to feed them, we, too, must not fall into the trap of instrumentalizing and rationalizing everything, thinking this undertaking, or that initiative, or this political program will solve all of our problems. Our starting point is faith, which is a gift from God. The flower of faith is hope and its fruit is love. As God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is a communion of divine persons, through our participation in this Eucharist, God seeks to form us into a communion of persons in accord with Jesus’ high priestly prayer from the seventeenth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, where praying to His Father, He says, "The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me" (John 17:22-23- ESV).
It is only by faith, which is an experience borne of an encounter, that is, something that actually happens to you, we can say, in the words of the Psalmist, "The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs."