Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Isaiah 55:1-3
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 145:8-9, 15-18
Second Reading: St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 8:35, 37-39
Gospel: According to St. Matthew 14:13-21
One of the great themes in film is that of food. From the absurd use of a pre-concert backstage buffet in This Is Spinal Tap to the truly iconic pastry and coffee in the mistitled Breakfast at Tiffany’s, food has proven to be an essential aspect of any worthwhile cinematic story.
One of the most beautifully symbolic uses of food comes midway through the 1957 film by Ingmar Bergman, The Seventh Seal. Set in medieval Sweden during the Black Plague, the story follows the journey of a knight who is playing chess with Death. He encounters a travelling family – Jof and Mia (Joseph and Mary), the parents of baby Mikael (Michael – meaning “who is like God”) – and they ask him to be their dinner guest. In the context of the film, the only real happiness that the knight finds is when sharing wild strawberries and cream with this “holy family.”
This use of food mirrors the reality of our lives on both a mundane as well as a profoundly spiritual level. When we invite company to our houses it is assumed that some sort of food and drink will be a part of the event. This uniting of house guests and food is more essential than one might think – the word “company,” as well as “companion” – takes its meaning from the Latin for “with bread.”
We show people their status in our eyes when we invite them to our homes, ask them out to eat, or search them out in a crowded cafeteria. We prepare food for and eat with those for whom we have some connection that we wish to exhibit and foster – whether that connection be related to the love of family and friends, the love of a potential spouse (think of the importance of cooking a meal for a date), or the love of those in need at a place like the West Side Catholic Center or the Catholic Worker. In fact, that universal, unconditional love of neighbor is known as agape love, and the name “agape feast” was given to the meal shared by early Christians – a meal in which the present-day Eucharist finds its roots.
And so the story of the feeding of the five thousand should come as no surprise to those who understand the mission of Jesus. As a prelude to the meal, Matthew tells us that Jesus’ “heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.” That translation is good, as far as it goes, but it lacks the intensity of the original Greek: “Jesus was moved to the core of His being.”
When we are moved to the core of our being for another person and we wish to bring comfort, food is quite often at center of our response. It is no wonder that the Works of Mercy known as Comforting the Afflicted and Feeding the Hungry go hand in hand. And so it was with Jesus, who put aside His own distress over hearing the news of the murder of John the Baptist at the hands of the royal family and tended to those who needed His mercy. The feeding of the five thousand brought peace not only to the crowd, but to Jesus as well. At the beginning of the story Matthew tells us that Jesus “withdrew…to a deserted place by Himself,” yet the needs of others took Him from that “deserted place” and brought miraculous results.
As always, Jesus sets the example, showing us that there is no better way to deal with our own personal difficulties – whether we be confronted by the Black Plague in medieval Sweden or COVID-19 in 21st century America – than by comforting, and therefore feeding, those who will take both physical as well as spiritual nourishment from our act of loving mercy.