Divine sustenance from a child

DancingHomily for Proper 12, year 

2 Kings 4.42-44; Ephesians 3.14-21; John 6.1-21

I’m not bothered whether the feeding of the five thousand is historical or not. Its symbolic power is profound.

Jesus distributes victuals to the hungry. Victuals, fruits of creation, are gathered by the labour of human hands. Crossing the lake to the other, gentile, side tells us that the message is for all, not just respectable club members. It’s for the whole world, represented by the five thousand. God’s grace and goodness is signified by 5 in Biblical numerology. In all this, the allusion to the mass is clear enough: takes loaves, breaks them, distributes, consumes.

Here are several topics for a homily, but today I’m not dealing with any of them. I want to consider something you may think is a minor detail. All the gospel writers tell this story, but only John tells us that the victuals are provided by a paidarion, the Greek for child or young slave. Yes: the bread of life comes from the hands of a child. This is a remarkable detail, and one that hits me all the more forcefully every time I see children in action.

Here are some resonances it conjures up:

  • A little child shall lead them.
  • Allow the children to come to me.
  • If anyone hurts a child, it would be better for that person to be thrown into the water with a stone around his neck.
  • To enter the kingdom of heaven you must be as a child.
  • The old man carried the child, but the child governs the old man (Simeon).

What is it about children that is so important to salvation?

Straightforward. Trusting. Direct, unhampered by so-called politeness and good manners. Pushing at boundaries. Taking risks. Full of energy. Full of imagination.

The openness and open-mindedness of children reminds me of a favourite Hebrew image of salvation: enlightenment, freedom from ignorance. Buddhist too. Such freedom comes from living in the moment—being fully aware of what exactly is going on in and around us, with open eyes and minds: nonjudgmental mindfulness.

But this is a difficult thing for us adults to aspire to. The ‘freshness’ of the child within us has been obscured by the accretions of ‘adultness’ that gather around the core. Layers that come from pride, wilfulness, selfishness, thoughtlessness, self-deception, pretence, puffed-upness. We are “inclosed in our own fat”. We tell ourselves that some of these things are necessary to get on in life, to crawl up the greasy career pole, to please other people. I know—I’ve been there. All these things that prevent us from living the authentic life that is trying to get out. All these things mar the image of innocence within, and by innocence I mean simply a lack of noxiousness. Our hearts are hardened by life. Scarred. Solidified. Frozen in ice. All encasing that innocence, that child-likeness within.

To give a medical analogy, think what happens when we are wounded. The wound heals by scarring, and scar tissue is thick and ugly. So as we go through life with its hurts – others hurt us and we hurt ourselves, the accumulating scar tissue obscures the inner core. It clouds our view of the world; it prevents others from seeing what we are truly like. We end up like a Russian doll with so many layers covering the core.

The journey towards salvation requires us to let these layers fall away. I suggest, like the Fathers of the Church of the first three centuries (before Augustine) that the core within is divine, part of God implanted within us all. All we have to do is cooperate with it once we recognize it. To recognize it requires that we search for it.

This is not easy. A good place to start is by self-examination, by trying to see ourselves as others see us. You might try imagining yourself on a cloud looking down at you and noting what you see. One of the best ways to go about this task is to open your heart to someone you trust absolutely.

You might say that such self-examination is about letting the light shine into your soul. It may be that you are altogether better than I am, with only pure whiteness within—but looking around at you, I doubt that. In myself I’ve seen pride and selfishness masquerading as necessity or pragmatism. I’ve convinced myself that rearrangement of my prejudices is radical thought. And I don’t think I’m alone: listen to the first letter of John: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

Later in the liturgy we meet the Lord. He is love, so why be afraid? Maybe we are not so much afraid as ashamed. If God is love, and love is God, we don’t need to be ashamed. Are we afraid that by letting someone into our lives we are in some way diminished? Not so, said Pope Benedict XVI at his inauguration: ‘Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return.’

Let the warmth in. Warmth hatches chicks. We need hatching of our hearts. Or, melting. Strangely warmed, as John Wesley said. Warm the shell of grumpy self-obsession, and we see the world again through child-like eyes. If the eye is healthy, the whole body is full of light.

Hatching of the heart is not going to happen until we pause, rest, and are still – in order to let it happen. The challenge is to confront our demons inside in the hope that the light of Christ will bleach them, to help us to approach the image of God within. Now we get to the message of the reading from Ephesians: Christ does indeed dwell in our hearts. We may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.

Consider this:

I think we have lost the ability to balance. Our equilibrium is off. I can’t remember the last time I witnessed somebody making a good balanced unbiased decision. I think the phrase “godly, righteous and sober life” is the thing, sober is the way forward, well–considered, well thought out, and poised. This doesn’t even come close to saying what it was supposed to, but when you get started it’s hard to stay on point which I think was about listening. Inner peace – it is in the listening that I heal. The problem is that the noise inside my head is deafening.

My elder son wrote that in an email from Texas. He died a few years after.

Listening to the quiet, letting the heart be warmed and hatched in the light, is a daily discipline. Listening in silence is prayer. There are other ways of hatching too: coming to church is hatching with others—battery hatching. Journal writing, gardening, walking, acts of compassion, social protest are others.

Whatever ways you choose, attend to your heart. Listen to others. Be quiet and listen to yourself. Read The Snow Queen. Again and again—it’s full of pertinent resonances, wholeness restored when Gerda’s tears of love melt Kay’s heart of ice. Through child-like love we attain eternity.

O my Saviour, lifted from the earth for me, draw me, in thy mercy, nearer unto thee. Speed these lagging footsteps, melt this heart of ice as I scan the marvels of thy sacrifice. Lift my earth-bound longings; fix them, Lord, above; draw me with the magnet of thy mighty love. Lord, thine arms are stretching ever far and wide, to enfold thy children to thy loving side. And I come, O Jesus: dare I turn away? No, thy love hath conquered, and I come today, bringing all my burdens, sorrow, sin, and care; at thy feet I lay them, and I leave them there. William Walsham How, 1823-1897.

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