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Learning to Understand the Loaves: Can We Help to Build an Economy of Gift and Communion?

By Deacon Keith Fournier
January 9th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

We see, revealed in the humanity of Jesus, who we are to become and how we are to live with one another. I suggest we also see in the account of the feeding of the five thousand a key to a new way of considering economic issues as we seek to apply the principles offered by Catholic Social Thought to this vital intersection of faith and culture.

CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online) - On Tuesday of the week between the Feast of the Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord this year I will read St. Mark's Account of the feeding of the five thousand at Mass (Mk. 6:34 - 44) On Wednesday the account continues and Mark makes an important connection between the Lord calming the winds and seas and the disciples understanding about the loaves. (Mk 6:45 - 52)

During that encounter, the disciples encouraged Jesus to dismiss the crowd because, in their assessment, they could not feed them even with two hundred days wages. They did not see with the eyes of faith. Jesus did. In His Sacred Humanity, He was moved with compassion for the crowd. He also understood the economy of heaven. Do we?

Jesus asked the disciples a simple question: "what do you have?" They did not understand. They had been invited to participate in God's work by simply giving what they had in a Holy Exchange. When they did, Jesus used the matter given by men, five loaves and two fish, to manifest the manna of heaven.

The next day the instruction and the experience continued. We find them in the boat fishing. We find Him praying. Their placement in the "boat" in the story was a favorite image for the early fathers, seen as a figure of the ark of the Old Covenant and the ark of the New, which is the Church.

It is this Church, a communion of persons joined in Him, that Jesus came to found and over which He would later install these men to continue His redemptive mission. But first they had to "understand about the loaves".

This kind of understanding only comes from "communion" with the Father. It is the fruit of authentic faith. He invited the disciples to believe that when they have Him, they have everything. Yet, here in a storm, they fled to the familiar, the fear of the circumstances. So powerful were their fears that they prevented them from even recognizing God Incarnate as He passed right before them! They thought He was a ghost!

How crippling our own fears can become when we do not commune in prayer but rely on ourselves and our mere human effort. They had not "understood about the loaves". Do we? We will live the way we love. Faith is a light that is to preside over our entire lives, even during those storms that inevitably come.

When it does, we see Jesus right there in the midst of the storm. We come to experience authentic peace, even in apparent turmoil and we learn to navigate the waters of daily life. The Lord heard the cry of the poor as it issued from the mouths of his own disciples and He spoke these beautiful words: "Take Courage it is I: Don't Be Afraid".

However, the words and the encounter speak to us about much more. Let us ask the Lord to help us come to "understand the loaves" and the principles the entire encounter may reveal. Perhaps the various accounts of the multiplication of the loaves not only recount a miracle of the past, but can open up to us an understanding of the possibilities of an economic order rooted in gift and communion.

Pope Benedict's  Encyclical letter "Charity in Truth" (Caritas in Veritate') contains within it the seeds of hope for building what the Church has long called a "truly integral humanism". The very idea of building an economy of communion and gift is rooted in this understanding.

The Holy Father reminded us that "ideological rejection of God and atheism of indifference, oblivious to the Creator and at risk of becoming equally oblivious to human values, constitute some of the chief obstacles to development today. A humanism which excludes God is an inhuman humanism." (#78)

In an age which has born the bad fruits of atheistic and "secular" humanism, we are called to proclaim the new and true humanism revealed in Jesus Christ, the New Man. These words of the Second Vatican Council in its' document on the relationship of the Church in the "modern" world, reflect the understanding of the early Church:

"The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear."

We see, revealed in the humanity of Jesus, who we are to become and how we are to live with one another. I suggest we also see in the account of the feeding of the five thousand a key to a new way of considering economic issues as we seek to apply the principles offered by Catholic Social Thought to this vital intersection of faith and culture.

In this letter Pope Benedict addresses economic challenges presented by globalism. He calls for the application of social and economic ordering principles the Church has long proposed, such as "subsidiarity", within these new contexts.

He reminds us this is a principle of "inalienable human freedom. Subsidiarity is first and foremost a form of assistance to the human person via the autonomy of intermediate bodies. Such assistance is offered when individuals or groups are unable to accomplish something on their own, and it is always designed to achieve their emancipation, because it fosters freedom and participation through assumption of responsibility."

He continues, "Subsidiarity respects personal dignity by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others. By considering reciprocity as the heart of what it is to be a human being, subsidiarity is the most effective antidote against any form of all-encompassing welfare state." (#57)

The Pope asserts the inextricable link between this principle of subsidiarity and the principle of solidarity which affirms that we really are our brother's (and sister's) keeper.

When this Encyclical was released the early responders attempted to read it through the prism of political categories such as "left" and "right", "liberal" and conservative". The wrangling reminded me of the line in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy is asked by Belinda "Are you a good witch or a bad witch" to which she responds, "Why I am not a witch at all".

The incessant efforts to characterize the principles offered in this brilliant letter as "for or against capitalism" when it does not even use the word "capitalism", missed the directions offered within it to proceed with a proper approach to development.

This letter, like the miracle of the loaves, invites us into a way of living which begins in, proceeds through and reveals our human vocation to live in relationship. We are by grace and nature called to communion with God and, in Him, to communion with one another. That should change everything, including how we relate to the goods of the earth and how we share those goods with one another.

Pope Benedict XVI calls for an approach to economic development which reflects the primacy of the person, the family, our obligations to one another and our special call to love the poor. He points to another way, the way of gift, love, participation and communion.

He helps to unpack the meaning of the Gospel story, inviting us to build an economy of gift and communion. The Gospel account is not only about a miracle which occurred in that "lonely place", but about the miracle which can occur in every "lonely place", including the place in time in which we now find ourselves.

In the synoptic accounts Jesus instructs the disciples "You give them something to eat" (See, Matt. 14, Mark 6, and Luke 9), the invitation to move beyond a mentality of economism and scarcity into a new way of living, with and for one another.

When they gave what they had, placing it in the hands of the Master, He multiplied and mediated their gift and the economy of gift and communion was manifested.

Not only were all fed but "the fragments" left over filled twelve baskets. The number twelve reflects the twelve tribes of Israel and the Twelve Apostles, the living stones of the New Israel, the Church. Multiplying the two we come to 144,000. It is the number which symbolically stands for the fullness of the Church redeemed in Christ. (See, Rev. 7 and 14)

Like much numerology in the sacred scripture, it has meaning as well. There will always be enough. That is we recover our true humanism and learn to live together in love.

St. John the theologian uses the little boy to demonstrate the condition of the heart required to enter into the meaning of the loaves. (John 6) As a child, he held nothing back. He simply gave what he had. Will we? Gather the Fragments, live the miracle, build an economy of gift and communion.

Perhaps, if Christians try to understand the Loaves, we will also be able to help structure an Economy of Gift and Communion.

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